Dear Mr Miliband and Mr Hunt,
We welcome the Labour Party’s Review of Mental Health and the clear understanding that insufficient money has been spent on Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. We also welcome the clear statement regarding prevention strategies. There has to be significant investment to prevent poor mental health before problems escalate into long-term illnesses that are hugely detrimental to the wellbeing of individuals as well as massively costly for society in terms that go beyond the financial.
The press statement above includes a shocking statistic which, in our writing on the matter, we’ve referred to regularly – that only 6% of the mental health budget has been spent on child and adolescent mental health services. The fact that three quarters of mental health problems are diagnosed in childhood makes this figure even more unacceptable and abhorrent.
The appalling short-sightedness of underfunding in mental health is rightly being addressed by the Labour Party through this statement, through the additional report, and hopefully into the election manifesto for 2015.
In your statement, within the section on action for Early Intervention, you suggest that “Local authorities, the NHS and schools should work together to ensure all children can access school-based counselling or therapy if they need it.”
Whilst this is a positive step, we would suggest that there’s a preventative strategy that precedes this – one that has never been appropriately funded and one that could prevent the alarming rise in child and adolescent mental health problems.
By this we mean that as educators, as health practitioners, as politicians and civil servants, we should look very carefully at the underlying causes of mental health problems and plan to address these in a coherent manner.
For instance, universal wellbeing would mean that every child, from the moment they enter school at nursery, should have access to quality Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE). Within the PSHE curriculum young people should learn about and develop a range of coping and enabling strategies that some are referring to as “resilience” and “character education”, having thankfully dropped the erroneous label of “soft skills”.
These are definitely not soft skills. They are core skills and tools to manage life effectively and are possibly the most important ideas and values that we can teach our young people. They are fundamental to wellbeing, and if invested in properly now can save the nation millions of pounds in the future.
We appreciate the Labour Party commitment to statutory sex and relationships education (SRE) but this isn’t enough in itself. It has to be more holistic. The personal and social development of the child shouldn’t be restricted to a nominal allocation within a timetable. It should be an integral part of our aims for education and the purpose and planning in every school in the country, irrespective of funding and governance arrangements.
We turn now to the causes of mental health problems in children and young people. They are many and various. There’s never a one-size fits all recipe for mental health because every one of us is unique – with our own particular coping strategies (or lack of them).
We must look at the main causes of poor mental health. Inequality, inadequate housing and poverty are obvious underlying causes and can be addressed in a multi-faceted, multi-departmental manner.
However, there’s overwhelming evidence that one of the contributory factors to an increase in mental health problems for children and young people is the inordinate stress they face through the very nature of the system of education that prevails in this country, i.e. an education system that wholly concentrates on and is wholly judged by the academic success of children and young people.
Eminent professionals such as clinical psychiatrist Dr Tanya Byron and head teachers such as Tony Little and Antony Seldon are all saying that our young people need more than exam passes to “succeed” in life. Tanya Byron has stated quite categorically that there’s a huge increase in the number of young people who aren’t coping with the enormous expectations that are loaded upon them to succeed academically. Cases of self-harming have increased exponentially.
It’s no longer controversial to make the link between high-stakes, high-pressure examination systems and the impact they have on the wellbeing of young people. The fact that personal and social development takes a backseat in schooling puts stress on the notion that success in exams is the be-all of education. It isn’t. Neither is it “preparing children for adulthood”. Nor is it enabling their wellbeing in childhood.
If schools are continually judged on academic success alone, then that is what they will concentrate on. If university applications are integral to a school’s success, then that is what will be pushed, irrespective of the fact that not all young people are academically inclined or successful.
Whether a child chooses to study an academic subject or whether they opt for a vocational course under the greater emphasis that the Labour Party is placing on apprenticeships, they all need skills that will assist them and enable them in life – communication, literacy, resilience, empathy – to name but a few.
The teaching and learning of values, skills and attitudes has to be given its appropriate place within the aims of education. Without it, we’ll continue to need excessive finances for tackling mental health issues for our children and young people. Without it, our children and young people will continue to be emotionally damaged by the education system that is supposed to serve their needs and the needs of society.
The Every Child Matters agenda, on paper, began to do this. We believe it’s time to review this important document and identify why it failed – namely that the only level of accountability in schools was a judgement of their academic attainment.
We would urge you to consider the real crisis facing our young people and how the causes of their mental health problems are impacted by policies that were introduced in the name of helping them but have ultimately harmed them.
Of course we want our children to be numerate and literate. We also want them to be emotionally literate and mentally healthy, and for this to happen we need universal and cohesive planning for wellbeing before a crisis occurs for the individual, for their family, their community and ultimately society.
Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall