Stephen McGhee: Less stigma over mental health means more people seek help

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Today marks World ­Mental Health Day, an opportunity for stakeholders working on mental health issues to talk about their work and what more needs to be done.

This year’s theme, set by the World Federation for Mental Health, is young people and mental health in a changing world. It’s highly appropriate for us here in Scotland as this year we mark the Year of Young People.

The well-documented statistics on mental health problems as they affect children and young people in Scotland are stark and speak for themselves, with more individuals than ever seeking help.

It is estimated that one in five children will experience a mental health difficulty at least once in their first 11 years. By the time they’re 16, roughly three children in every class will have experienced mental health ­problems, such as anxiety, depression and self-harm. Half of all adults who are mentally ill experienced the onset of their mental health ­problems by the age of 14.

Without effective intervention these conditions can have a significant impact on their life ­chances, not just on the individual concerned, but on ­society and the economy as a whole.

The increase in the number of those coming forward is, of course, a welcome sign that the stigma around ­mental health is reducing, and ­children and young people are more willing to seek support. However, this is clearly putting already stretched and under-resourced services under intense pressure.

The latest figures indicate that child and adolescent mental health ­service (CAMHS) waiting times in Scotland were the worst on record for the ­quarter April to June this year, with one-third not starting their treatment within the Scottish Government’s 18-week waiting time target, itself still far too long to wait.

That is why we need all partners working in the sector, including the Scottish Government, to refocus on prevention and early intervention, and reduce the burden on costly ­specialist CAMHS provision.

As the Scottish Government ­prepares its budget for the forthcoming financial year, let us make this a budget for mental health, where we are delivering significant investment in prevention, early intervention and specialist CAMHS.

To its great credit, Scottish ­Government is to be applauded for the work it has done in seeking to treat mental health with the same energy and commitment as physical health, delivering a 2017-2027 Mental Health Strategy, with 13 of 40 actions complete or nearly complete within the first 18 months.

However, the recent joint report by the Auditor General and Accounts Commission called for a ‘step change’ in the way the public sector responds to the mental health needs of children and young people.

Like ourselves, this notes a ­concern that the current system is geared towards specialist care and responding to crisis, despite the Scottish ­Government strategy being focused on early intervention and prevention.

It further noted that youngsters also face barriers to accessing services, with school counselling and primary mental health services highlighted as being patchy, and access to specialist support services varying considerably across the country.

Yet, the cost advantages of prevention and early intervention cannot be underestimated. The cost of five ­sessions of school-based counselling is equivalent to just one contact with CAMHS. Investing a fraction of the mental health budget on school counselling services helps to keep the individual in school and ­reduces the burden on stretched and costly CAMHS provision.

The Scottish Government has made recent welcome moves to address this and in its Programme for Government announced a significant investment in school-based mental health support.

This included investment of more than £60 million in additional school counselling services, supporting 350 counsellors as well as £20 million for 250 additional school nurses. This will ensure that every secondary school has a counselling service.

Much has been done, but there is still much more we can do to ensure children and young people get the right care, in the right place, at the right time, and from the right professional. That requires the private, ­public and third sector to work in closer partnership and for there to be significant investment in mental health services.

Stephen McGhee, depute managing director, Spark of Genius.