Yesterday, I attended a local support service that offers various groups and activities for people with mental health problems.
I have been many times before and shared these services with lots of other adults.
But, that afternoon, a very young person was dropped off to join our group.
They were a shy and gentle soul. I’m sure it felt a little scary being there. So I went and I sat with them and we did some activities together and chatted about our dream pets and our favourite music.
Inside, I was upset and a little angry. I’m sure the support service will be of great help to them, but it made me very sad that they had to be there at all.
Of course, I don’t know their story. But my heart sank at the thought of this wonderful young person struggling with their mental health.
As I mooched on the sofa that evening, it continued to play on my mind.
So I did some reading, to better understand the struggles young people face with mental health problems and where we are in terms of support, educating and understanding.
Data from 60% of the UK’s mental health trusts shows that almost a quarter of a million people under the age of 18 are receiving mental health care, with problems such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders. Amongst them are 11,849 boys and girls aged five and under. The figure could be much higher of course, as the data didn’t include another 40% of mental health trusts.
Www.mentalhealth.org.uk reports that 10% of children and young people (aged 5-16 years) have a clinically diagnosable mental problem, yet 70% of children and adolescents who experience mental health problems have not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age.
Early intervention is the key. According to the World Health Organisation’s figures, 50% of mental health problems are established by age 14 and 75% by age 24.
But, of course, there are obstacles. The main one, as is the case with mental health services across all ages in the UK, is a total lack of funding and resources.
In an article for The Guardian, author Emily Reynolds writes about “Five ways Britain wrecks young people’s mental health – and how to stop it”
“Cuts to the NHS aren’t new – the Conservative government has been slowly dismantling the health service since 2010. And it shows no sign of slowing – a 2016 investigation by the Guardian and 38 Degrees revealed that trusts around England were “drawing up plans for hospital closures and cutbacks” in an attempt to avoid a £20bn shortfall by 2020.
Mental healthcare has suffered disproportionately: unmanageably long waiting lists for secondary care, to take one example. Referrals to therapy or specialist units are hampered by a lack of available staff or by ward closures – which means that diagnosis of more severe conditions are delayed even further.
This is particularly striking when you consider that most young people wait on average 10 years between the onset of illness and an eventual diagnosis – and means that many are slipping through the cracks with neither diagnosis nor adequate care.
Similarly, cuts to community care have meant that more children than ever – 20,000 in 2015 alone – have been seeking emergency mental healthcare in A&E, in wards that are often staffed by stressed, overstretched teams who have no specialist psychiatric support to help them cope.
Mental health research is, in general, an underfunded area. In 2014, the UK Clinical Research Collaboration found that mental health was only allocated £112m a year – which sounds like a lot, until you consider the nearly 15 million people in the country affected by mental illness. In context, this means a research budget of just £8 per person affected by mental illness – a startlingly low sum, especially when compared to less common conditions like cancer (£178 per person) or dementia (£110 per person).
Less than 30% of this research is focused on young people – meaning we haven’t even started to understand how to tackle mental illness in young people.”
Though I would often come across a right loudmouth (I know, right?), inside I was a very insecure and worried child. I would switch back and forth from an attention-seeking extrovert to being painfully shy and feeling low and needing to be alone. I was struggling with abandonment and the constant feeling of not being good enough. I didn’t know who to talk to or how to deal with these feelings.
I had my first panic attack at 12. I’d hide in the toilets every morning before school and cry, before composing myself and going to registration.
I’d look around at my friends and the other kids at school. They all seemed to be having a right good time of it. But not me. It must be because I am weird, I am broken, I am the only one who feels like this. I would berate and punish myself.
I tried to hide these feelings as best I could, to lie almost as an instinct and mask it all by being the class clown.
20 years ago, when I was a pup, there was even more of a stigma surrounding mental health. On the TV, in the cartoons, to many a person in the street, mental illness was still straight jackets and thunder and lighting cracking over asylums (Or is that Count Dracula I’m thinking of…?).
It wasn’t until my mid-teens, when anxiety and depression had stopped me leaving the house or going to school, that I found out what help was available. My GP put me on antidepressants, referred me to my Community Mental Health Team and I began counselling with the charity Youth Talk. But even then, the only resources available to help me understand my diagnosis was a leaflet.
Charities such as Place 2 Be (www.place2be.org.uk) and The Difference (https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/aug/22/teach-first-children-excluded-school-mental-health) are working with schools to educate children from young about mental health, giving students the ability to recognise the signs and to be able to articulate their thoughts and feelings. Educating from young will hopefully teach peers to be more understanding and supportive, too.
The Difference train new and existing teachers to be a school’s mental health specialist. Place 2 Be offer services such as lunchtime self-referral, which is a quiet place for children to come and chat about their concerns, one to one counselling in primary schools and whole class workshops, as well as support, education and training for teachers and parents.
One of Amazon UK’s best sellers at the moment is “Scrambled Heads” by Emily Palmer.
It’s a children’s book that helps breakdown the complex issues of mental health. The main character, an egg, looks healthy, but below the surface it isn’t. It has a bandage on it’s head, but when it looks in the mirror, it can’t see it. On a visit to the hospital, the egg is split in two and the reader can see what’s happening inside.
Emily Palmer wrote it after her own battles with anxiety and anorexia from the age of 13, to address the complete lack of resources to help young people understand their mental health.
The book tells young people that sometimes mental illness can mean getting very poorly and perhaps needing to go to hospital, but delivers this in a way that doesn’t scare children off from seeking help. The message is “It’s OK, there are steps that can be taken”. The book also keeps things balanced: because you’re feeling sad, it doesn’t mean you’re depressed, for example.
“Scrambled Heads” is now being used in many schools as a tool to help teachers start the conversation of mental illness.
Children are less likely to suffer from serious mental health difficulties in later life if they receive support at an early age, providing a cost saving to adult mental health services.
NHS England estimates that poor mental health costs the economy and the NHS £105 billion a year.
Young people can be too easily dismissed as “thin-skinned millennials”. But they must be taken seriously if there is to be progress. Young people need to know it is safe to come forward, that there is help and they will be heard.
Most importantly, no child should have to suffer because of the greed, self-interest and apathy of government, nor because of social miseducation or ignorance. Childhood is supposed to be happy and carefree. Of course that’s not always possible. But real change can start with a conversation. Talking, teaching and, most importantly, listening.
Peace and love xx