This week, the Health and Social Care Select Committee published its latest report into children’s mental health. The Committee issued a call to not undo recent progress to tackle the gap between children’s need for mental health support and what is provided. We have worked closely with the Committee on this, including the Commissioner giving evidence given the prominence of mental health in The Big Ask as children spoke about their experience in lockdown. It is the absolute priority of the Commissioner to make sure every child receives timely, high quality mental health support if they need it.
Children’s mental health has always been what’s known as a ‘Cinderella service’ within the NHS. It hasn’t always had the same priority or reached the headlines in the same way other services have and some children have struggled to access services.
In recent years, that story has been changing. The reduction of stigma about talking about our mental health has led to a national conversation about treating mental health equally with physical health, and the need to address these stark gaps in care.
And progress has been made. The Children’s Commissioner’s Office has published an annual briefing on children’s mental health, which has documented the steady work being done to invest more in services, increase the number of children being seen, introduce new access targets like a waiting times target for eating disorder treatment, and to gather better data on what is going on. This is so important, as without good data it is very hard to get a picture of whether progress is being made and what action needs to be taken.
But then, of course, the pandemic hit. At that time, while good progress had been made, there was still a gap between the care provided and what was needed. The pandemic has led to a sharp rise in children needing support. NHS surveys tell us that before covid around 1 in 9 children had a ‘probable mental health disorder’ – that jumped to 1 in 6 in 2020 and has stayed at that level.
The Children’s Commissioner’s Office have recently undertaken the largest ever survey of children in England. The Big Ask took place as we emerged from the second lockdown in spring of 2021. The good news is that the vast majority of children were happy. Around 8 in 10 children told us they were happy or okay.
Nevertheless, 1 in 5 children told us they worried about their mental health – the biggest issue they worried about. Children had a new recognition of the importance of their mental health, and they saw it as closely connected to their physical health. Having good mental health was also one of their top priorities for the future. Many children told us of their struggles to access support, but what they are calling for isn’t rocket science. They want advice and support to promote good wellbeing. And they want someone to talk to when things went wrong, and their worries start to pile up. They want help at a time and place that works for them: in school, online, or somewhere on the high street where they can just drop in.
So, it is vital that, as we emerge from the pandemic, further measures are needed to prevent the loss of all the good progress that has been made in this area. We are pleased to see the Select Committee echo the findings of The Big Ask, calling for a clear plan to increase access to specialist NHS services and an early help offer, with support online, in schools and in the community.
We want to see a faster roll out of Mental Health Support Teams in schools, a national offer for digital support and for drop in hubs for young people to access in their community. This would increase access overall, but especially for those children who might struggle to access traditional NHS clinics, including children in care. We also want to see a continued push to improve crisis services to avoid children being admitted to hospital unnecessarily and a continued drive to improve the quality of care in children’s mental health hospitals for those who do need admission.
The Health and Social Care Select Committee has issued an urgent call for action. It is time for a renewed ambition for our children. We want all children in England to have the support they need to thrive right from the earliest years. They need the tools to promote good physical and mental health. And when things go wrong, they need to get the right support, in the right place, at the right time. We have started the journey to get there – we must not let the pandemic stall this progress.