Government mental health plans ‘failing a generation’ of children

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The Government has come under fire from both the education and health select committees of MPs, who say that its flawed plans risk leaving hundreds of thousands of children without the care they need.

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  • Green Paper on mental health 'lacks ambition'
  • Targeted funding needed to support children and young people's mental health needs
  • Lack of focus on early years 'a missed opportunity' for prevention

In a joint report published today (Wednesday) the Education and Health and Social Care Committees slam the proposed Green Paper on Transforming Children and Young People's Mental Health Provision, saying it lacks ambition and will provide no help to the majority of those children who desperately need it.

The report also criticised the Government for ‘missing’ the early years in its strategy. The report said, ‘A lack of focus on the early years means that opportunities are being missed to promote emotional resilience and prevent mental health and well-being problems later in life. There is no consideration given to the important role that health visitors and children’s centres can have in promoting emotional wellbeing in the early years or of the adverse impact reductions in funding for these areas might have on support for the 0 to 5 age group.’

In their report, The Government’s Green Paper on mental health: failing a generation, the MPs warn that the long timeframes involved in the Government's strategy will leave hundreds of thousands of children and young people unable to benefit from the proposals. The Government is rolling out new ‘Trailblazer’ pilot projects where mental health teams provide extra support alongside waiting time targets. But these schemes are set to roll out in only a fifth to a quarter of the country by 2022/23.

The Green Paper wants schools to provide a designated senior lead for mental health themselves, but the committees warn that both health and education services are under great strain with significantly stretched resources, and workforce recruitment and retention concerns. Half of school leaders appear to have cut back on their mental health support services.

The report also highlights how young people giving evidence to a forum for the report spoke about the pressure of exams on their mental health and well-being, and calls on the government to gather evidence on the issue.

The committee heard, in formal evidence, that young people excluded from school seem much more likely to have social, emotional and mental health needs, yet the Green Paper does not address this issue. The Government must focus on the increase in pupils being excluded with mental health needs and how the mental health needs of excluded pupils are being met, the report said.

Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, said, ‘The Green Paper is just not ambitious enough and will leave so many children without the care they need. It needs to go much further in considering how to prevent mental health difficulties in the first place. We want to see more evidence that Government will join up services in a way which places children and young people at their heart and that improves services to all children rather than a minority.’

Chair of the Education Committee, Robert Halfon MP, said, ‘The Government must back up its warm words by taking urgent action to address the mental health issues which children and young people face today.

'This strategy does not go far enough, which raises the very real prospect of hundreds of thousands of children missing out on the getting the help they so desperately need. We heard of the strong links between social disadvantage and mental health issues. If the Government is serious about tackling injustices in our society, it must ensure proper targeted funding of support for those most in need.’

Mr Halfon added that ministers should also recognise the separate support needs of apprentices and FE students, and called for social media education to be a compulsory part of PHSE in all schools, given it could have both positive and negative impacts on young people’s mental health.

Unions and charities back the MPs’ findings

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said, 'School leaders are reporting a serious – and growing – concern for children’s mental wellbeing. The demand for professional mental health services has increased in recent years, but funding has plummeted. This means that schools are finding it very difficult to get children the support they need.’

A poll of delegates at the NAHT conference last weekend showed that 93 per cent are unable to access specialist mental health support for the children in their school when they need it.

Charities and early years organisations joined in criticising the Government for failing to give enough attention to the role of children’s early years in its mental health plans.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said, ‘It's difficult to see how government could contemplate any children's mental health policy that doesn't begin with the role of early years professionals in promoting mental well-being in young children. It is by now well-established that the first five years of a child’s life are pivotal to their long-term development and so there is simply no excuse for the lack of focus on the early years in the Green Paper – as such, the report is absolutely right to call on ministers to look again at the important role that childcare professionals can play in this area.

‘We also welcome the committee’s recognition of the importance of children's centres in supporting children’s emotional well-being. We have long argued that such centres provide a vital service to children and families, and we hope that as the government looks to move forward with its work on children’s mental health, it will recognise the crucial role that children’s centres play by providing proper clarity over their future.’

Anna Feuchtwang, chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau, said, ‘The Government must listen to demands from the Education and Health and Social Care Select Committees and the children’s sector, and bring forward funding to support schools to prevent poor mental health, with a clear and properly resourced action plan to implement improvements in specialist mental health services.

‘While the Government’s vision recognises that prevention is better than cure, the focus on early years in this Green Paper is not nearly strong enough. Like teachers, staff in nurseries and other early years settings need mental health training so they can work with parents to promote young children’s social and emotional development. This is a vital part of the jigsaw if a child is to have the confidence and social skills that will get them ready for school and stand their emotional wellbeing in good stead throughout their childhood.’

Director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, Imran Hussain, said, ‘Like everyone else, MPs are disturbed that for all the talk of early intervention, early years settings are invisible in the Government’s plans. As the report highlights, no consideration is given to the role children’s centres and health visitors play in boosting very young children’s emotional resilience and identifying any issues children’s primary caregivers may be grappling with - a particular concern, considering the fact essential services children’s centres offer are at risk due to a lack of funding.’


Matthew Reed, chief executive of The Children’s Society, said, ‘Thousands of young people in desperate need of support with their mental health are being failed. We want the Government to urgently bring forward new funding and to strengthen its plans to improve provision so that all children get the help they need.’

He also urged ministers to focus at least one of the trailblazer groups on vulnerable children, commenting that there was little in the Government’s plans for those affected by sexual abuse and neglect, domestic violence and drug and alcohol misuse, children excluded from school and refugee children. 

Barbara Keeley MP, Labour’s shadow minister for mental health, said, ‘This report deals a hammer blow to the credibility of the Tory Government in ensuring children and young people with mental ill health get the help and support they need and deserve.
 
 
‘Mental health treatment for children continues to fall short on key standards, such as access and waiting times; the Tories’ proposals do nothing to address these problems and will instead heap pressure on hard-pressed teachers and overstretched services.
  
‘The Tories should follow Labour’s lead and commit to increase the proportion of the mental health budget spent on children and young people and ensure that access to a counselling service is available for all children in secondary schools.'

A Government spokesperson said, 'We completely reject any suggestion that our plans lack ambition – these changes will transform mental health services for children and young people, including the first ever waiting time standards for those with the most serious problems.
 
'This will be supported by a new workforce - larger than the entire current workforce - and backed by £300m of additional funding that will also provide significant additional resources for all schools. This builds on what good schools are already doing, without adding unnecessarily to teachers’ workloads.
 
'We agree that every young person should be able to access mental health support – however we need to ensure we get this right, which is why we will pilot this approach to make sure services are correct.'

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