Coronavirus has sent us into a spiral. Urgent improvements are needed to support children’s mental health

A boy behind a cross on a blue background symbolising the Scottish flag, beside a quote from Head of Strategy Gina Wilson: "Funding for mental health was inadequate before the pandemic but coronavirus has sent us into an unprecedented spiral."

By GINA WILSON, Head of Strategy

We wouldn’t expect children and young people to cope with a broken leg or a lingering cough without help and attention, why aren’t we offering the same level of care when it comes to mental health?

This year has been difficult for many of us, and children haven’t escaped the impact of the pandemic. Mental health services, already stretched, have come under increased pressure. Restrictions have affected their delivery. There has been a twofold effect― children and young people have been telling us that their mental health has suffered, while it has been harder for them to access treatment.

Research shows children’s mental health is in a worrying place

Earlier this year, we asked the Observatory of Children’s Human Rights Scotland to carry out an independent child rights impact assessment on the pandemic. It found that many more children will require support with their mental health for some time to come. It is likely that the current model of mental health provision will not be able to deliver on children’s rights to the best possible standard of health. Children and young people have consistently called for support to be made available more quickly and directly. Mental health support is a universal need.

The latest Lockdown Lowdown survey of over 6,000 young people, conducted between September to November 2020 by SYP, Young Scot and YouthLink Scotland, found that 38% disagreed that they felt good about their mental health and wellbeing. Furthermore, 44% did not feel confident accessing information about support for mental health and wellbeing. Those are worrying stats.

Funding for mental health was inadequate before the pandemic but coronavirus has sent us into an unprecedented spiral. Don’t forget, Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children should have and access ‘the highest attainable standard of health and to facilities for the treatment and rehabilitation of health.’

So, as we report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, we have to ask the Government: What are you going to do about it?

What needs to be done for children’s mental health

We know what we want them to do. We want to see more investment in children’s mental health services and we want it to be targeted where it can make a difference.

We’ve listened to children and young people and they want to be able to access proper support in schools, that means ensuring better and faster access to school counsellors. Young people in Scotland recommended that there should be a national standard for mental health in places where children and young people learn. The Scottish Government commitment to putting in place 350 in-school counsellors by the end of Oct was welcome, but we’re concerned about children and young people’s ability to access them. Some schools will have one counsellor for 800 pupils. That’s simply not enough.

Outwith schools, there is inconsistent provision of mental health services in the community, with resources in some areas focussed on CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) and inpatient services. Inadequate community provision has resulted in increased and, in the absence of other services, inappropriate CAMHS referrals. Most CAMHS services were very limited from March-June 2020 so long waiting times are likely to have increased even further. 

What’s really alarming is that many young people have said they can’t get help from acute services until they are in severe crisis. They may be suffering from depression or anxiety but because they aren’t having a mental health emergency, they can’t access treatment. Many talk about the length of time – years, in some cases – they can go without getting any help and how profound an effect this has on them.

It doesn’t have to be like this though. We must invest in wraparound, community-based mental health services that are accessible to children and young people at any point – not just when they are in crisis. Acute services are vital, but we need a level of service that plugs the gap from being given a leaflet in school to receiving treatment in hospital. The availability of support needs to be better.

The pandemic has made it even harder for young people to access the support they need. Unfortunately, it’s an entirely bad report in terms of mental health. We want to see a political commitment to making urgent improvements.

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