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Young people are our future: time to solve the children’s mental health crisis

Children and adolescent mental health has received a lot of attention lately, from the press and government alike. On the 9th of January the prime minister announced a new NHS funding strategy, with promises to fund mental health training in schools and to review children and adolescent mental health services across the country.

But why is children and adolescent mental health so important in the first place? Let’s take a look at some figures:

  • Overall, 1 in 10 children aged 5-16 have a diagnosable mental health problem
  • 50% of serious mental health problems begin by the age of 14
  • In the UK, nearly 80,000 youth suffer from severe depression, and 300,000 have anxiety disorders
  • In 2015, a fifth of children who tried to access mental health services were rejected
  • In 2016, some children were sent over 300 miles away from home for inpatient treatment in mental health services

It’s therefore not surprising that many parents consider ‘systemic and structural issues’ as the number one barrier to accessing child mental health services, ahead of personal views about services and concerns about stigma.

However, it is incredibly important that children and adolescents do receive the professional help and support when they need it, rather than waiting months or even years for treatment. It’s important because struggling with mental health can have a long-lasting negative impact on many other areas of life. For example, children with conduct disorder are twice more likely to drop out of school, four times more likely to become addicted to drugs and twenty times more likely to end up in jail. Adolescents with anxiety are also less likely to attend university and are more likely to struggle with problems in young adulthood such as anxiety, depression and drug addiction.

Mental health trusts will need to have the resources to help young people during critical periods, as children and adolescents now have to face an average wait of 32 weeks for a routine psychological appointment. A recent article in The Guardian narrated the personal stories of such children and adolescents trying to access mental health services across the UK. We were particularly struck by the experience of one anonymous young child who visited their GP at the age of 12 for help with depression due to bullying; the GP explained there was a long waiting list to be seen by mental health services, so at the age of 13 the child attempted suicide. This was not an isolated case: as Abby, an 18 year old from Sussex, also shared how she attempted suicide just before her 18th birthday, after initially being refused help from child and adolescent mental health services.

In contrast, when clinical treatment is accessed at a young age it has a long-lasting positive impact throughout life. For children with anxiety, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy has been shown to reduce the risk of drug addiction later in life and to reduce suicidal ideation and attempts. For adolescents with depression, any kind of psychological therapy has been shown to rapidly relieve depressive symptoms, reduce suicidal ideation and improve functioning.

While the prime minister’s promises are a step in the right direction, especially by recognising the importance of early intervention and reducing stigma, it will take far more than this to help youth currently suffering from mental health problems.

It is now vital that we continue to talk about children’s mental health. We need conversation between young people and adults to determine the issues within the system, and evidence-based research to address these issues. At the Maudsley we are encouraging initiatives like the Takeover Challenge, where young people have the opportunity to interact with clinicians and researchers and host mental health debates. Our Young People’s Mental Health Advisory Group also run regular meetings where 16-26 year olds can share their own experiences of mental health services and shape future research in the field.

Children’s mental health may seem like a huge problem to tackle, but everyone can take small steps to help. Reducing stigma, raising awareness and providing support begins in your home, in your school, in your workplace and in your community. You can even start right now by pledging your support online in MQ’s campaign to take on mental illness in young people .

See who else has joined the campaign by following #WeSwear

Anna Patricia McLaughlin & Carmine M. Pariante are researchers at the Institute of Psychology, Psychiatry & Neuroscience, King’s College London and South London & Maudsley NHS Trust

You can follow Anna McLaughlin and Carmine Pariante on Twitter.

Carmine Pariante also writes blogs for the Huffington Post.

Last updated: 27 April 2018

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