Mental health investment needs to be targeted so it can make a difference

As we reflect during Children’s Mental Health Week, I’ve revisited a blog I had written at the end of 2020 about the lack of mental health support for children, before and during the pandemic. I’m afraid to say that the article still stands, and in fact things have become worse for many.  

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

The last two years have 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. Children and young people have been telling us that their mental health has suffered and there still isn’t enough help available to them in their own communities.  

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

Early in the pandemic, we asked the Observatory of Children’s Human Rights Scotland to carry out an independent child rights impact assessment on its effects. 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 2,000 young people, conducted between March and June 2021 by SYP, Young Scot and YouthLink Scotland,  identified mental health as a primary concern among young people, with over a third (35%) worried about their mental wellbeing and two fifths (40%) not confident about accessing information on mental health and wellbeing.  Respondents said that they would like to receive more support with mental health, including better support in school. 

Funding for mental health was inadequate before the pandemic but coronavirus has made things even worse. 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’ and that includes mental health, but we continue to hear that children have difficulty accessing support in the community or, for more serious mental ill-health, through CAMHS. 

What needs to be done? 

Lots of research is available to show us what’s missing. We need more investment in children’s mental health services and it needs 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 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 were children and young people learn. Before the pandemic, the Scottish Government committed to put 350 counsellors into schools – that’s no longer enough.  And we’re hearing it is still difficult for children and young people to access counselling, in and out of school. 

Outwith schools, there is inconsistent provision of community mental health services which increases referrals to CAHMS. We’re concerned about referrals which are refused as inappropriate – because often there isn’t another service available. Most CAMHS services were very limited during the two lockdowns, so what were already 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 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 community-based mental health treatment and support 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 limited support available in school to receiving treatment from CAMHS specialists.  

The pandemic has made it even harder for young people to access the support they need. We want to see a political commitment to making urgent improvements. 

This blog was first published in December 2020 and updated in February 2021.

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