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'We must broaden support for young people with mental ill health'

Kulvir Channa
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The sheer scale of poor mental health amongst young people in England is shocking.

An estimated 854,804 young people between five and 18 years old have a clinically diagnosable mental disorder, stretching child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) to the point of crisis. Young people presenting with severe mental health needs are often left on waiting lists for months on end before they receive support.

Specialist services clearly need reform but that cannot be the sole focus.

Mental health exists on a spectrum where someone can move up and down, requiring different levels of support at each stage. Specialist services have inevitably focused on the most severe and clinically diagnosable cases. This has left young people close to access thresholds being left without support until they reach their moment of crisis. There needs to be a wider focus of support for all young people as they seek to improve their mental fitness. A young person should be guided by their wider network of support – family, friends and professionals – and hopefully never need support from specialist services. Not only does a broader focus help those not needing clinical treatment but, by clearing the route into CAMHS, it also helps young people to access clinical help when they face a crisis.

Localis’ report, A Healthy State of Mind, makes this case. Young people do not go straight to specialist services when they first face problems with their mental fitness. Instead, they tend to seek professionals with whom they are already in contact, such as school staff, GPs and, for young people in the looked-after system, professionals working in children’s services. Widening the issue of mental health beyond clinical, specialist services would mean a young person, initially reaching out for help, would be given proper support, guidance and, if required, referral to these services.

Despite good intentions, these professionals are often fearful of the risk attached to ‘getting it wrong’ and tend to widen the pool of professionals around a young person without actually addressing their concerns. To help young people with their mental fitness, there needs to be a concerted effort to provide all professionals working with young people with better knowledge of mental health issues and allow young people to receive support directly in non-specialist settings. For example, our report argues school-based support services should be made statutory. This, on top of mandatory modules on mental health in initial teacher training, would offer low-level interventions for young people directly from trusted professionals within their school.

The Conservative Party manifesto for the 2017 general election highlighted the need to reform CAMHS to ensure that young people “with serious conditions are seen within an appropriate timeframe”. To improve the quality of mental health services for young people, there must be a radical overhaul of the entire system of mental health, improving the experience for young people from when they initially seek support to when those at crisis receive specialist treatment.

Kulvir Channa, researcher, Localis

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