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Jasmine Ali: We must act against this child mental health crisis

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As Children’s Mental Health Week 2019 draws to a close for the words of a 17-year-old girl I met recently stick out in my mind: “You have to self-harm worse than anyone else just to get treatment.”

She explained to me the sheer desperation with which she repeatedly tried to get help. It began with depression and suicidal thoughts. But she didn’t get the support she needed. One year on she tried to take her own life, was rushed in to hospital where she received five weekly appointments. After that she was “discharged in a rush”.

On Christmas she returned to A&E where she had an initial round of therapy and then a seven month wait for follow-up treatment. Months later she is finally getting the right support, which is helping her to look after herself.

Unfortunately, this experience is unlikely to be unique. Nationally it is estimated one in ten children aged 5-16 is suffering with poor mental health. Yet we have an NHS target treatment rate of just 35%.

To put it more starkly, we would never accept a hospital that only set 35% of children’s broken arms. As many of us who work in or have accessed mental health services know, it is not subject to the same focus, commitment or political ambition as physical health.

There is a child mental health crisis in our country now. That is why in Southwark we have committed to supporting 100% of children and young people with mental health needs to access the support they need by 2020. It’s a bold step but testimonies like that of the young woman above highlight why we need to be ambitious.

The council, schools, the clinical commissioning group (CCG), the local voluntary sector, community, young people’s representatives, parents and existing children and adolescent mental healthcare recipients have come together to agree this ambitious, compassionate goal. Together we are now starting work to turn our shared ambition into a reality.

As Southwark LBC’s cabinet member for children, schools and adult care I have been struck by the innovation that I’ve seen at a local level that shows that there is significant room for improvement.

Exciting innovations in Birmingham and Camden are just two examples of how local government and other stakeholders are working to improve the lives of vulnerable young people through preventing poor mental health and providing better access to services.

Locally we are looking at how digital tools can help people with mental health needs and how young people want this to look and feel. Our schools are at the forefront of fostering good mental, so we are embedding effective preventative mental health support across our network of schools.

Building on our work in primary schools, the future focus for us is our secondary schools. Beyond schools, we will work with our communities, businesses and other partners to tackle the causes and conditions of poor mental health.

Whether you are a mental health practitioner, parent, teacher, local government officer or councillor, I know there is a universal desire to deliver the best outcomes for children and young people. It simply isn’t good enough to say we will only treat some of the children who need mental health services.

These formative years for children are not dress rehearsals, and effective support at the right time can make a huge difference throughout their lives. Here in Southwark we’re aiming for 100%. Nothing less will do.

Jasmine Ali (Lab), cabinet member for children, schools and adult care, Southwark LBC

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