Lisa Cameron: The UK government has neglected children’s’ mental health

Where's the strategy? Where's the funding?

As we enter a second whole-scale lockdown, the overwhelming consensus is that children are the losers.

My Early Day Motion ‘A Covid-19 recovery mental health strategy for children’ quotes Chris Witty and Sir Patrick Vallance who predicted that children’s mental health will be further jeopardised by a virus spiralling ‘out of control’.

In July 2020, experts warned that the mental health impact of Covid-19 would be worse than the physical effects, and Chartered College of Teaching research found fewer than 5% of teachers expressing confidence in supporting traumatised pupils on the September school return.

Many have predicted that school absence and home lockdown will be deeply destructive for the mental health and wellbeing of all children (in particular those from vulnerable groups ) and Dr Adrian James, President of the Royal College Psychiatrists has claimed  COVID-19 as the greatest threat to mental health since the second world war. 

The December 2019 Queen’s Speech pledge to reform the 1983 Mental Health Act during the course of this parliament was praised by the families and campaigners who had welcomed the 2017 Green Paper: ‘Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision’ and it was reasonable to assume that children and young people’s mental health needs would feature prominently in Government measures to combat the damage of COVID-19. But this has never materialised. 

Mental health is absent from the COVID Recovery Strategy; neither has it featured in a Statement or national press conference. Ministerial Answers to Parliamentary Questions have repeated pre-pandemic mental health tropes about online ‘tools’; for teachers and elderly pilot schemes.

There has been no new money for children’s mental health and with the exception of a modest sum in the Comprehensive Spending Review; all monies have been what remains from sources designed for other purposes (such as the schools Catch up Premium).

Above all, there has been no sign that the Government has a timetable to reform the1983 Mental Health Act nor any indication that children’s needs will be part of it. 

Here, the UK Government also differs markedly from the devolved administrations; in particular a Welsh Government that has designated mental health services for all ages as ‘essential’ during the pandemic and beyond and the Scottish Government  commitment made by First  Minister, Nicola Sturgeon who pledged in her address to the Scottish Parliament after the 2020 summer recess:

‘We will deliver the major expansion of mental health support for children and young people that was announced in last year’s programme for government.’  

It is critical that the UK Government define a new strategy for children’s mental health that will endure and strengthen long after the pandemic has run its course. Funding will be needed, but the principles below are used successfully in many other countries and are not contingent upon the outcome of lengthy and expensive trials.

  • A preventative approach. Proactive strategies from early years settings onwards can decrease the likelihood of problem behaviours and nip them in the bud 
  • The primary and secondary curriculums most embed an understanding of emotional wellbeing and the certainty of therapeutic help for those who need it. Quality provision should be assured by ring-fenced funding  and all staff should receive Initial Training  and Continuous Professional Development in the principles of good mental health in addition to the funded provision of in-school professional counsellors and therapists
  • Children must be protected. Anyone wishing to work therapeutically with children must be registered fit to practice via an independent government – approved agency. Acceptance on a register and annual re-validation should be contingent upon properly rigorous renewal and re-validation systems
  • Making data sharing a legal requirement. Joined up working between all agencies and Government Departments concerned with children’s welfare would improve outcomes for children in all circumstances
  • Policy to be informed by the best possible evidence. Findings from real-life practice should be prioritised; creating reputable evidence bases for working therapeutically with children
  • Focus on parents and carers. High quality support should be accessible and available to parents and carers to help them better understand and support their children within school, home and health settings.  

COVID-19 is not the first pandemic to devastate nations – but pandemics also disrupt established complacencies. The creation of a Department of Health was one good outcome of the 20th century Spanish ‘flu. Building back better in the wake of COVID-19 must be a better strategy, enshrined by law for children’s mental health.

It would be a transformative step. 

Dr Lisa Cameron is an SNP MP for East Kilbride and a consultant clinical psychologist.

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