We’ve known for a while that child mental health is in crisis.
Earlier this year we discovered just how bad it has become, with the Office for National Statistics revealing that 5 in every 100,000 young people aged between 15 and 19 commit suicide each year.
To put that in perspective, there are 3.67 million people in the UK in that age group, meaning we can measure the appalling record of successive Governments’ policies on child mental health by the 185 body bags that find their way to hospital morgues every year.
If that sounds overly dramatic, it’s because it is.
Last month the mental health charity Mind called on Boris Johnson to deliver on six mental health priorities. Among them was a challenge to meet the existing commitment to schools and to make progress – through better funding – on prevention and intervention.
So far, the Prime Minister’s sole contribution to the debate around mental health – offered in an opinion piece written for the Daily Telegraph week before he entered Number 10 in July, has been to offer the absurdly vague suggestion that part of the answer to the current mental health crisis lies in honest hard work.
Two years ago, his predecessor’s favoured solution was to fund mental health awareness training for all pupils in primary school. Which, when you think about it for more than 5 seconds, isn’t a strategy at all, and certainly not one robust enough to deal with something as tangibly serious as the mental wellbeing of children.
In 2015, David Cameron’s Government created a war chest of £1.4 billion to help give young people better access to public mental health support. A recent Freedom of Information request revealed that most of that money was spent in areas that had nothing to do with mental health care at all.
Next month the Government will publish brand new data on mental health in children. It is the first Government study to examine the emotional wellbeing of our youngest generation in 14 years.
In fact, mental health services for children and young people remains one of the most critically underfunded and under-resourced areas of mental healthcare in the UK, a fact that is disturbing enough on its own.
But when you then put that in the context of the facts relating to youth mental health, it exposes a failure of governmental welfare responsibility (not just limited to the Conservatives) that represents nothing short of moral and ethical bankruptcy.
Mental health website mentalhealth.org estimates that around 1 in 10 young people (aged between 10 and 20) suffer with a serious mental health disorder – whether depression, anxiety or conditions affecting conduct. Based on this year’s ONS population estimates, that means around 1.2 million pre-teens and teenagers are dealing with a significant mental health episode for which, in all but the most extreme cases, they receive little or no support.
The organisation directly attributes that scale of poor mental health to what is going on in those young people’s lives. And while it’s easy to lay the blame at the door of Government, I’m afraid that parents must also shoulder some of the responsibility.
The stratospheric increase in the use of social media has long since been known to be a factor in emotional wellbeing. Children are under enormous peer pressure to live up to certain stereotypes and expectations. Kids live their lives in a social media bubble where every ‘like’ fills a barometer of approval and fuels – or drains – self-esteem.
It’s painfully clear that the social media companies whose products they are welded to for much of their day – particularly Facebook (which owns Instagram and WhatsApp) and Snapchat – are either unwilling or unable to grasp the nettle and introduce policies and processes that will curb cyber abuse, restrict usage and properly screen inappropriate content.
The Government, by turn, wrings its hands and says all the right things, yet lacks either the sense of urgency or technological knowhow to tame the writhing snake pit that the social media industry has become. I mean, it can’t even find a way to make these companies pay tax, so it’s hardly surprising this is in the folder marked ‘Too Hard’.
And by yet another turn, it seems that parents lack the bravery needed to protect their kids from themselves by limiting access to technology or restricting screen time and weathering the storm of hormone-fuelled outrage that follows.
Exams heap further pressure on kids whose nerves are already fried and who are living well beyond the limit of good emotional health.
And yet again the Government is to blame as it relentlessly uses that most arbitrary of benchmarks – and exam result gained largely on the basis of what you could remember on any given day in May – to ultimately determine how much teachers get paid.
Stretched staff project their own pressure and anxiety on their young charges by demanding better, stronger, faster, harder. And Whitehall refuses to bend. Happiness – that most basic of human needs – is not a commodity of value in our education system.
And all the while, children are dying by their own hand because there is no support, no structure and no access to a framework of help.
They are dying not metaphorically, but literally. At the rate of one every two days.
Our job as adults is to protect our children, and to allow them to be children for as long as possible. That’s not a nice-to-have, it’s our stone-cold responsibility. But as a society, we fail them every single day, first by not identifying the mental health risks they face on a daily basis, second by not ensuring help is available to them when they stumble.
I’m not suggesting that we should be able to prevent all mental health issues in children. It’s an impossible and bullishly naïve ambition. Just like adults, children can be prone to sudden and unforeseen failures in their emotional health.
In many cases children will be susceptible to mental health issues because they have experienced some form of trauma previously, others will simply crinkle under the weight of expectation and the enormous stress that brings.
But we’re tired of seeing broken children arrive in our clinic for want of better support in schools, or better education for parents or better funding from Government.
It’s great that in a month or so we will have a better understanding of the scale of the mental health crisis among young people in the UK. But by then another 15 children won’t be here to benefit from what we’ve learned, and there’s no sign that this or any other Government will have the wherewithal to save the 16th child. Or the 17th. Or the 18th.
So, here’s a question: if you could save the life of one child by writing a letter and asking your MP to actively campaign to change the story on children’s mental health by lobbying for better funding, greater accountability from Facebook et al, and a change in the way school performance is measured, would you do it?