We need a network of support to get mental health right for every child – Lynn Bell

Lynn Bell, CEO of Love Learning Scotland, member of the Scottish Children's Services Coalition
Lynn Bell, CEO of Love Learning Scotland, member of the Scottish Children's Services Coalition
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As we mark Children’s Mental Health Week (4-10 February), the issue of mental health has never been more prominent. There are a multitude of reasons for this, including increasing recognition of an escalation in mental health problems, linked to the pressures of modern-day living and the impact of social media. In addition, as a society we also have an increased acceptance that poor mental health can affect anyone at any time. Supporting an increasing number of people identified with mental health problems is acknowledged as one of the greatest public health challenges of our time.

To address this challenge it is vital that mental health be valued equally with physical health, so-called “parity of esteem”. Poor mental health affects our economy and society, and it is widely acknowledged that many mental health symptoms start to arise in early childhood. It is estimated that one in ten children and young people aged five to 16 have a clinically diagnosable mental health problem. Therefore, it seems obvious that the solution lies in prevention and early intervention.

Yet the recent report from the Auditor General and Accounts Commission on child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) tells a different story. It notes a system geared towards specialist care and responding to crisis, despite the government strategy being focused on early intervention and prevention.

It further noted an increase in young people being referred to CAMHS and longer waiting times, a sign of a system under significant pressure, and that services are complex and fragmented. This is making it difficult for children, young people and their families to get the support they need.

Youngsters also face a range of barriers to accessing services. For example, early intervention services – such as school counselling and primary mental health workers – are patchy. The report also highlighted that access to specialist support varies across the country.

The importance of prevention and early intervention should not be under-estimated. Children often struggle to cope with their mental health issues. Yet, if mental health problems are treated early this also provides a natural start to building resilience within a child’s emotional capacity, meaning that a spiral into serious mental health problems can often be avoided.

The statutory services that are provided in this area must therefore be flexible, allowing them to react and respond appropriately, at the earliest opportunity. Expertise in the third sector should also be mobilised more fully, using its considerable expertise to relieve the increasing burden on services, of which more later.

The increased spending that has been received from the Scottish Government for mental health services is greatly welcomed, but there is clearly more that can be done.

Beyond the services provided, what would bring considerable benefit is providing support to parents on how they can build resilience in their child’s emotional wellbeing.

In order to maximise the benefits of this parents should be involved as early as the antenatal period, as well as while the child is growing up, educating them on how best to deliver this support.

In addition, key aspects requiring a renewed focus include training our teachers on recognising signs and symptoms of poor mental health, allowing them to provide early support and facilitating the necessary interventions. This must be embedded in teacher training, with mental health and wellbeing being made a key aspect of the school curriculum. In order to build resilience in our children we should also be bolder and more innovative – teaching them how to be mentally fit through techniques such as mindful meditation.

As highlighted we need to make more use of our third sector. Those organisations equipped to deal with education, support and crisis intervention should be used more fully. There also needs to be greater collaboration across government, local authorities, the NHS and third sectors if we are to fully address the needs of those with health problems, ensuring that they are able to realise their full potential.

High-quality, well-resourced and quickly accessible services are the utopia, but systemic change comes from individuals and attitudes that create or foster a positive culture of change. So where does accountability and responsibility for children and young people’s mental health services lie?

It is my view that this lies within every individual in Scotland. So, as we mark Children’s Mental Health Week, this is a plea for neighbours, friends, families, parents, teachers, professionals, third sector and government officials to come together, delivering a network of support and ensuring that we get it right for every child.

Lynn Bell, CEO of Love Learning Scotland, member of the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition