NSPCC’S Young People’s Board for Change: What can we do to develop a mental health system that works for children?

This independent article from Lola, a young person involved with NSPCC’S Young People’s Board for Change is part of the LGA children and young people's mental health think piece series. This independent piece from Lola's own personal experience explores of the mental health system explores what can we do to develop a mental health system that works for children?

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With almost six years of experience of our current mental health system, I have seen many of the ups and several of the downs of how it works and the help it offers. No system will ever be perfect but there are many changes that can be made to make it more helpful to young people and their families. That is why I am writing this piece to share my opinions on some of the changes I think should be made to better support us young people. Here are some of my ideas..

One way the government can ensure that it is creating policies that will benefit all children is to include the voices of children themselves. It may not sound appealing to a room full of law makers, who have been creating policies for many years, but children are much more insightful than many adults realise. And, as many of us have personal experience with the current system and all its flaws, we are the perfect people to ask for insight. It is also nearly impossible to create a system to support us without including us in deciding how it works. So, how do we reach out to a diverse range of young people? By using surveys advertised on platforms and spaces that young people are known to frequent; such as social networking sites. There are also many children and young people who volunteer for charities like the NSPCC or YoungMinds, who would be more than happy to help.

Building on this, the inclusion of young people’s opinions shouldn’t stop at how the system works, but also how it helps individuals. I never felt particularly included in my care and never understood what was happening. I am so lucky that I had my parents on my side to not only advocate and fight for my care, but to explain things as best they could. However, not every child is this fortunate. When supporting each individual child, why shouldn’t we have a say in how we are going to be helped?

We may not be experts in mental health support, but we are in ourselves. To achieve this successfully, an open line of communication must be kept with the young person and not just their parents, and children should be given the option of what they think would work for them. For example, if a mental health service is suggesting counselling, why not ask the child if online or in-person would be better for them. This offers children a bit more control and will help with the understanding of their care. Offering online alternatives is also helpful for certain people who may have complex needs.

Additionally, one of the more direct flaws of the current system includes problems with accessibility. A mental health system designed to support young people has to actively aim to support all young people. This includes children and young people with complex needs, children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), children from different ethnic backgrounds, children from disadvantaged families and so on.

The current support available lacks the ability to support children with specific needs. One example would be that deaf children face a barrier to support due to many mental health professionals not being trained in British Sign Language. This leaves them with a lack of ability to communicate making getting help significantly more difficult. There is also little support to specifically target the mental health challenges of children with SEND. As a young girl diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, I have much personal experience in this area.

The many times I have been referred and re-referred back to CAMHS I have always found that the support I received failed to acknowledge or support the different struggles I have with mental health compared to someone not on the autism spectrum. Diagnosable mental health conditions are shown to impact autistic people much more frequently than non-autistic people, and we tend to experience it slightly differently meaning autistic children might not respond to support quite the same. To combat these issues, mental health professionals need to include SEND diagnosis in the decision of determining how to best support them. This may include offering different types of therapies, longer counselling sessions or specific help to teach autistic and other neurodiverse children how to best manage their disability.

Accessibility for children from disadvantaged backgrounds is very important. Many of these children find it difficult to know how or where to access help and children who may be having troubles at home might not have their parents to turn to. So, why is there not more support available at school?

If every school across the country had a designated mental health team and on-site counsellors that students can go talk to when they need, then that would not only allow certain students a safe place to reach out for support but also provide early intervention care in a convenient place. There is a huge gap for early intervention care in our country as many children are left on waiting lists for so long that their situations are left to worsen. Early intervention care prevents this from happening and thus is vital to a successful mental health system. Having counsellors in schools would provide some early intervention care for young people and hence would decrease the number of children left on waiting lists and the number of children needing long-term support.

Another way of providing early intervention is education. Education about mental health is vital to allow children to grow into strong individuals as it provides insight into what mental health is and how they can help themselves to protect it. This should start to be taught to children as young as primary school age to allow children to grow up knowing how to manage their mental health and how to spot if it gets worse. Knowing this prevents children from potentially ignoring problems that they don’t know how to deal with and provides insight into what to do if it does get worse.

The current school curriculum is fairly comprehensive in a variety of areas compared to what our parents were taught (have you ever tried to do your child’s triple science chemistry homework?), but there’s no point in leaving school knowing how to rationalise denominators and perform cation tests when your mental health is in tatters and you have no idea how to handle it.

This brings me to my final point, which I can’t not mention - waiting lists! A study found that out of 48 CAMHS trusts surveyed, six of them had wait times of more than a year for an initial appointment (that’s one in every eight). Additionally, as of March 2023, the average wait across the whole country was 40 days for an initial appointment. Even if this doesn’t seem like a disastrous amount of time, imagine how painful that wait is for a child already struggling with their mental health. It’s more than enough time for a child’s condition to worsen as they’re sat at home with no support and no end in sight. How do we combat this?

The main way, as I have previously said, is to focus on early intervention support to tackle the problems they are facing before they can get worse. There should also be easily accessible information for parents on how to protect their children’s mental health and how to best support them if it gets worse.

The same should also be available for teachers, who need training to be able to spot signs of mental health problems in their students. Furthermore, there should be more regulations on social media sites to protect children and more awareness of how it can affect their mental health. These solutions don’t directly target waiting lists but target the problems causing so many children to be on them. Thus, by reducing these numbers the wait time for appointments would decrease as well.

To finish, the children’s mental health system should be a priority for our government as the current system needs reform. It isn’t meeting the needs of us children and much can be done to better support us. I am aware that change comes with time and that no adjustments to the system will be easy, but there is a lot more that can be done to tackle the current mental health crisis we are seeing among children.

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This is an independent article. The content and views reflected within it were provided and written by Lola, a young person involved in the NSPCC's Young People's Collective.