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Since I came into post in 2021, I have spoken to over a million children and young people across the country. The vast majority of children are happy, and feel supported by their family, school and wider community.

However, there is a growing group of children who are struggling with their mental health. This generation of children has experienced uniquely uncertain and challenging times. Some have spent some of their most formative years isolated and indoors, fearful they or their loved ones may catch a deadly virus. They have felt the squeeze of a cost-of-living crisis, and are keenly aware of the pressure their parents are under. They are constantly bombarded by negative news, of wars and climate catastrophe. An increasing number are exposed to the harmful impact of social media, cyber bullying, and online exploitation. Crucially – not all children have the support system and protective factors they need to thrive in these difficult circumstances.

Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that we continue to see the number of children experiencing poor mental health at persistently high levels. The NHS estimates that 1 in 5 children and young people aged 8 to 25 in England have a probable mental health condition. This is in line with what children told me in my The Big Ask survey back in 2021, with higher levels of poor mental health among particular groups of children – such as older teenage girls and children in care.

I do not think it is an overstatement to speak of a crisis in children’s mental health and the services needed to support them. For this reason, every year I have been in office I have published figures tracking the gap between need and spending – as seen in waiting times and other key metrics – to keep the spotlight on this issue.

This report shows how much further we need to go to effectively support children to lead healthy, happy lives. Children are still waiting far too long to access the help they need – with over 270,000 children still waiting for support, and in the last year nearly 40,000 children experiencing a wait of over 2 years.

We should be ambitious about seeing demand for these services go right down. With the right early support, many children would not need to access mental health services. It is shocking to see so many children being referred to mental health services because they have reached crisis.

As my previous reports have shown, the level of care that children receive is very much still down to the luck of where they live. Waiting times vary hugely across the country, from an average of 147 days in Sunderland to just 4 days in Southend.

Many of the problems we see in children’s mental health services stem from a lack of prioritisation, at both a national and local level. Despite children being disproportionately likely to experience a mental health condition, inflation-adjusted growth in investment by ICBs in children’s mental health services is stagnating.

We need fresh, long-term thinking when it comes to children’s mental and emotional health and wellbeing. Much of this work must be done upstream, creating an environment and a world – both online and offline – where children grow up feeling happy, safe and supported. This means every child feels loved and nurtured, lives free from poverty, and is able to focus on learning. With enough focus on prevention, children should never come close to crisis.

For children who need it, support should be put in place quickly and locally: no child should be left on a waiting list for months or years.

I hope that these latest figures will contribute to the considerable body of evidence that the sticking plaster approach to children’s mental health is not working. There is clearly a persuasive economic case 5 to increase investment in children’s mental health services – which are the springboard so many children and young people need for happy and fulfilling adult lives. However, in my view there is a far more compelling moral imperative to take more ambitious action now. We would never knowingly allow a child’s physical health to deteriorate to the point of lasting or even irreversible damage.

Whenever I speak with children and young people, I am always amazed by their immense resilience and hopefulness that things can and will get better. This resilience should not be taken for granted. As we approach a general election this year, I want to see a culture shift – with leaders acknowledging that the health and wellbeing of our children is paramount for future prosperity. I want this generation of children to be the healthiest yet.

“To raise a generation that is equipped for life, that is ambitious, that can change the country for the generations after us too, the government needs to deal with the appalling mental health crisis in the UK.” – Girl, 16