The Select Committees’ response to the Government’s green paper on mental health support for young people has been unapologetically direct.
The Education and Health and Social Care Select Committees’ report scrutinised the “foundations and development” of the green paper and have found it to be wanting in several critical areas. The report’s title, “The Government’s Green Paper on Mental Health: Failing a Generation” leaves readers in no doubt of its view.
The primary criticism is one of ambition – or a lack of it. And although we welcome the general desire to transform services and support for young people, we have to agree with the Committees’ conclusions.
Some of the concerns raised by today’s report are that:
• The majority of children won’t be helped by the eventual setting up of ‘trailblazer’ areas, which will provide better support for just a fifth or a quarter of children in the country
• The green paper gives no focus to early intervention or prevention, which is vital if we are to understand and address the root causes of emerging mental health issues
• The narrow scope of the report ignores vulnerable groups of children, such as those being looked after
There are many other areas of concern, including the links between poverty and poor mental health, and the recognition by the committee of the link between the curriculum, the over-zealous culture of testing, exam pressures and mental health distress. The reference here is in line with what the Values-Based CAMHS Commission recommended: to scrutinise the links between educational policy and the mental health of children and young people.
It also identifies an unfortunate lack of a joined-up process which is able to apply what we know about mental health support across Government.
Lack of support outside school
However, I would like to raise an additional concern with the green paper – and with this Select Committee report.
Both have totally ignored the fact that not all children or young people want to get support in their school or college.
As we said in our initial green paper response, significant numbers of children and young people will look to their community or – more likely – online for support. For some, school is the last place they will want to get help.
The complete lack of regard for digital support services at all is surprising when we’re looking at the needs of this age group, especially when we consider that young people value anonymity as a key factor when getting help and are generally extremely comfortable online.
We do stress that digital is only part of the solution and understand that schools need to be enabled to be much more supportive of their pupils’ mental health. But the lack of a call for outside support and a lack of digital provision does undermine an early intervention or preventative approach.
Early intervention is something we can all get behind, although the term can be interpreted in different ways. For some, early intervention can mean very early help in a life cycle, such as perinatal support or early years help. It can also mean being able to access direct support as soon as an issue emerges – before it has chance to escalate.
We would argue for both. As well as providing early intervention and prevention support via parents, health workers, nursery leaders, teachers and carers, we need also to offer autonomous support for young people at the earliest opportunity.
We must also acknowledge that there will always be demand for specialist services. As the report states, “For some students support for their well-being is not enough, and specialist targeted intervention both in school and through CAMHS is needed. CAMHS are delivered by a range of organisations including NHS mental health and community trusts, local authorities and the private and voluntary sectors. The services they offer range from counselling to in-patient care.”
What is clear is this requires a concerted effort by all of us: the NHS, the voluntary, independent and private sectors, parents, families, teachers and carers. As Paul Whiteman, General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, quoted in the report, said: “schools can only be as successful as the services that they can access”.
The Select Committees’ report, as well as highlighting a lack of ambition, also highlights a habit the Government has of tinkering with a system that we all agree needs transforming. It’s difficult to see how an already complicated and fragmented system benefits from the Government’s proposed additional ‘pillars’. And it’s difficult to feel reassured that the green paper will bring about real change if the designated senior leads for mental health it wants to see are voluntary and not a statutory requirement in already stretched schools.
Let’s hope that the Government is able to respond to this report and show a deeper commitment to transforming mental health services for young people.
To fail this generation’s mental health would be unforgiveable.