Mike Storey: young people’s lives are too important to ignore mental health services in schools

Lord Storey
Lord Storey

Mike Storey, Lib Dem Education Spokesperson, hosted a debate in the Lords yesterday on mental health services in schools and colleges. He opened the debate saying:

I think that this is the fourth or fifth time in almost as many days that we have talked about mental health, which perhaps shows how important the matter is to your Lordships and that there is a need for action. No doubt there has been and will be repetition in what we all say but, again, that tells me how important the issue is. I also put on record my thanks to the numerous organisations that feel passionately about the issue and have sent a whole series of briefings.

Despite having one of the most advanced health systems in the world, child health outcomes in the UK, including for mental health, are among the poorest. Just 6% of the NHS budget for mental health is spent on children and young people. I know we have heard them on a number of occasions in the various Questions and debates, but we should remind ourselves of some of the facts. One in 10 children and young people aged five to 16 suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder, which equates to three children in every classroom. One in every 12 to 15 children and young people deliberately self-harm, and nearly 80,000 children and young people suffer from severe depression. Alarmingly, all these figures are on the increase. Yet despite these figures, a freedom of information request from YoungMinds sent to every NHS clinical commissioning group and every upper-tier local authority in England found that 74 out of 96 NHS clinical commissioning groups have frozen or cut their CAMHS budgets in the last two years, while 56 out of 101 local authorities in England that supplied information to YoungMinds have cut or frozen their budgets, or increased them by less than inflation, during the same period. We ignore the situation at our peril.

Half of those adults with mental health problems had symptoms by the age of 14, yet there is little urgency in getting a child into treatment and support.

What needs to be done? We all recognise that early intervention among schoolchildren is so important in helping to identify and address potential mental health issues. We need to ensure that every teacher has some form of professional development training to help them understand the problems and recognise the possible symptoms. This is not difficult and costs next to nothing. The Department for Education should include a mandatory module on mental health in its initial training, with mental health modules forming part of ongoing professional development in schools for all staff. Would the Minister consider a request to discuss this matter with her noble friend the Education Minister?

We need to have a school and college referral system which is fit for purpose. These young people’s lives are too important for them to be pushed from pillar to post. The SENCOs—the heads or co-ordinators of special needs in schools and colleges—need the training and the ability to refer cases speedily. Those referred should not have to wait for months and months to be seen. What does the Minister think is the minimum time within which a pupil or student who is referred should be seen by a professional? You would not expect somebody who is diagnosed with, say, cancer to wait months, let alone weeks, before they are treated.

I said that early intervention is crucial. The transition from school to college is complex and is when many health difficulties often arise: examinations, employment pressures and of course the influence of social media can all contribute to mental health issues. I was grateful to the Association of Colleges, which sent me the results of a recent survey it carried out. Of the 123 colleges which responded, 67% said the proportion of students with disclosed mental conditions had significantly increased year on year over the last three years. Alarmingly, 100% of colleges that responded said they had students who self-harm and have depression or anxiety. Worryingly, 60% of the colleges that replied to the survey did not even have their own college mental health policy. That is not difficult to do.

Then, of course, there are some fantastic examples of good practice in our colleges. Take Highbury College in Portsmouth: for several years it has developed its programmes and support for students with mental health conditions. As one student said:

“It helps me to believe in my own ability—I hope that I will be able to achieve things better in future. I’m a student again, and not just a mental health service user”.

Hackney Community College has developed mental health services since 1997. It is a beacon of best practice than can be disseminated to support the work of other partnerships. In my own city, Liverpool Community College works closely with the local authority and commissioning boards. Will the mental health prevalence survey include 16 to 18 year-olds as well?

Of course, for many young people education is not just building-based and many will be in educational training. That includes apprentices or trainees. They may not realise they are developing mental health problems and may be afraid of what is happening to them, not having the understanding, language, insight or ability to tell others what they are experiencing. Friends, parents or carers may not have experience of mental health problems and may not realise or recognise that they are developing them. We need a co-ordinated and joint approach between the Departments of Health, for Education, and for Business, Innovation and Skills, issuing guidance to learning providers and employers about their roles and responsibilities to apprentices and trainees regarding their mental well-being. An 18 year-old should have access to the same quality of service whether they are an apprentice or full-time undergraduate.

When the Children and Young Families Act passed through your Lordships’ House, one of the many issues that drew concern was that of young offenders, which we also talked about when discussing the secure college. In the debate, we discovered that 80% of young offenders had special educational needs and 20% were on statements, as they were then called. Also—I did not realise this—95% of imprisoned young offenders have a mental health disorder and many of them struggle with more than one disorder. Just think how their lives could be turned round with proper mental health interventions.

Finally, I again highlight the issue of children in care. A staggering half of looked-after children in England and Wales have a diagnosable mental health disorder—four times higher than the figure for the general child population. I was very taken by a report from the NSPCC, which had worked with local authorities and their health partners to explore how we can improve mental health support for children in care. That report makes important reading. In particular, it argues that rather than being the responsibility of only specialist services, every professional working with looked-after children should understand what they can do to support their emotional well-being resilience. I am absolutely sure that there is a real will and determination to ensure that children and young people with mental health and well-being disorders are given the maximum support, that early intervention becomes the norm, and that professionals are fully trained so that these young people can thrive and prosper, and enjoy their lives to the full.

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