Hundreds of new nurses are to be recruited in schools as part of a £250 million package to cope with soaring demand for mental health services among young Scots, Nicola Sturgeon has announced.
Child mental health waits are the worst on record, it emerged on Tuesday, with more than 3000 youngsters unable to secure treatment within the 18-week target.
The measures on mental health were the keynote announcement of Ms Sturgeon’s Programme for Government for 2018/19 unveiled at Holyrood as MSPs returned after their summer breaks.
The programme also included key measures to boost the economy, fight climate change and help victims of crime, as well as the early introduction of new Scottish social security benefits.
Ministers will introduce 12 new bills in the coming year, with 13 pieces of legislation still to be passed from last year. Tory leader Ruth Davidson branded the programme for government a “hangover from last year”.
The First Minister signalled a sea change in the Scottish Government’s approach to mental health support after years of criticism that services are not meeting the needs of Scots.
A £60 million package in the year ahead will mean that an extra 250 school mental health nurses will be provided to ensure that all pupils in Scotland have access to counselling services. It will also support 350 counsellors, she said.
“As the stigma around mental health reduces, demand for services is rising,” the First Minister said.
“We have a duty to meet that demand quickly and appropriately. That means doing more to support positive mental health and prevent ill health. It means delivering greater provision of mental health support in communities, including schools.
“And it means ensuring that these experiencing serious illness can access specialist services more quickly.”
Plans were also unveiled to fast-track young people with the most serious mental health illness to specialist services.
Just 67.8 per cent of the 4,664 children and young people who started their treatment during the three month period did so within the Scottish Government’s 18-week waiting time target. The figure compares with 71.1 per cent in the previous quarter and 80.7 per cent for the same quarter in 2017, and is the worst on record since the target was set in 2014.
Ms Davidson said: “Why has it taken until the day we see the worst ever waits on record for children to receive treatment before the government acts?”
Meanwhile Labour’s Richard Leonard said this year alone more than 2,500 youngsters had waited more than the Scottish Government’s 18-week target time for mental health treatment.
“The system needs to change and I hope that today is the first step towards doing that,” the Scottish Labour leader added.
The Programme for Government also set out plans for an increase of £7 billion in infrastructure investment on more schools, hospitals and roads.
Legislation for a Scottish National Investment Bank was confirmed as well as a “major new drive to increase exports”, with a national export plan to be published in the spring.
A Non-Domestic Rates Bill to implement the remaining recommendations from the Barclay Review on business rates will also be introduced, including a move to a three year valuation cycle.
The new Best Start Grant, a welfare payment aimed at helping low income families in Scotland, will be introduced six months ahead of schedule before Christmas.
“It will benefit around 50,000 families each year.”
The new Carers’ Allowance Supplement due to begin next week, with the Funeral Expense Assistance Grant is due to be paid from the summer of 2019.
But opponents said the programme unveiled by Ms Sturgeon showed a Government running out of ideas.
Ms Davidson added: “This is Nicola Sturgeon’s third Programme for Government and already she’s playing catch-up.
“After her much heralded relaunch last year - with 15 new bills - we see 13 of them are still in a holding pattern with only two having passed.
“It’s not so much a relaunch as a retread, and a hangover from last year.
“Her biggest failure is making her flagship Education Bill the centrepiece, saying it was vital in underpinning the ‘most radical’ shake-up of schools in the history of devolution - ditching it - and now trying to pretend to parents that it was the bill that was holding back improvements. When it comes to today’s offering, the Scottish public would be entitled to ask ‘is that it?’”
Liberal Democrat Leader Willie Rennie said the Government’s programme was “uninspired.”
“Nicola Sturgeon’s government is tired and failing. After ten years at the helm they’re out of ideas and the country is uninspired,” he said.
“Brexit and independence are massive distractions from the domestic issues that really matter. Under this government our health service is crippled and education is slipping.
“The First Minister claims solving the attainment gap is her primary goal. But she has sat by as the education system has deteriorated.”
Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie said the package was a “missed opportunity.”
He added; “Over recent years, the Greens have worked hard to do just what we said we would in the last election – pushing the government beyond its comfort zone, leading the change that Scotland needs. It’s clear that there remain many parts of the Programme for Government where we’ll need to step up that pressure for change.