WAITING times are just part of the problem and it is time we faced up to the challenge and offered support, writes Paul Godzik.
The recently released waiting times for Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAHMS) will be a shock to many people.
At a time when the Scottish Government has pledged that all patients will be seen with an 18 week waiting time target, to hear that only around a third are seen within that time is worrying. To learn than many young people are forced to wait many months more for an appointment is damning.
I know from talking to NHS staff that they are focused on getting these appalling waiting times reduced, but I also know from talking to teachers in our schools that much more could be done to tackle what is a growing and disturbing problem.
On visiting schools across Edinburgh I often hear about the pressure school staff are being put under, about them being unable to respond to what is a clear cry for help from a young person, about knowing that the obvious next step, a referral to CAHMS, will not see that young person get the support they need and deserve at that point, but place them and their family on a long, frustrating and painful wait.
What is even more depressing is to hear that those that often need the most help, children in families with chaotic lifestyles, often fall by the wayside and never access the service until a crisis point is reached.
As a society we have done so much in recent years to open up the issue of mental health, and talk more freely about the stresses and strains that all of us as individuals face at certain points in our lives.
Yet it is still a struggle for many adults facing mental health issues to seek the help and support they need from family, friends or from professionals.
For children and young people, the added peer pressure, the need to find their own voice and their own way to understand and rationalise what is happening to them, and the pressure of simply growing up, can add immensely to the anxiety they find themselves facing.
In Edinburgh we are, as a council, seeking to put in place a level of mental health and wellbeing support for children and young people. But we do so at a time when our central government funding is cut year on year, and we have no ability to raise revenue funding due to the Scottish Government’s council tax freeze. There are huge pressures on our education service already in terms of rising school rolls, the future demands on the city given the Local Development Plan, and looked after children. This is alongside very worthy commitments we’ve made to the Scottish Government on teacher numbers and class sizes.
So I’m very proud of the work our health and wellbeing team do, especially in terms of their work boosting resilience, and helping develop the social and emotional skills of children and parents, with for instance our Raising Children with Confidence programme, which has been delivered to over 1,500 parents over the last few years.
Our staff in schools have also all been offered training on mental health, to assist them spot those children and young people in distress and have the confidence to have that initial, and sometimes very difficult, conversation. We also have a valuable relationship with the voluntary sector who alongside the support guidance teachers deliver counselling services in some of our schools, while many head teachers, recognising the scale of the problem, have also sought to boost counselling support from their own school budget.
But there is so much more we need to do.
Continuing to develop and provide the staff training and family support is a naturally a priority, and something Edinburgh is committed to. Improved signposting would help, but not if it is simply to point the way to an overstretched CAHMS service.
Where we must grasp the nettle is in early intervention and providing adequate counselling support in our schools. Doing so would undoubtedly stem the demand for CAHMS.
More than five years, ago the Welsh government outlined their goal of having counselling provision available for all school pupils. They did so specifically to reduce the demand for mental health services but the evaluation showed that increased counselling helped not only the children referred but also allowed “teachers to concentrate on teaching” and helped schools “project an ethos of a caring, supportive school environment”.
Where the Welsh Assembly government have led the way I believe we in Scotland need to follow.
While our political energies over the past few years have been focused on constitutional issues the time has come to address the very real issues facing children and young every day.
• Paul Godzik is convenor of education, children and families at City of Edinburgh Council