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Minister for Children, Families and Wellbeing: Think piece on children's mental health

David Johnston, Minister for Children, Families and Wellbeing contributes to the LGA's series of independent think pieces which explore the current system for children and young people's mental health.

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There are few things more important to a country than the happiness and success of our children - something we cannot hope to achieve without working across society to promote and support their mental health and wellbeing. Last year, in the wake of the pandemic, this Government updated the title of the role, previously Minister for Children and Families, to include’ Wellbeing’. The change was important because we will not help young people achieve their potential if we leave them to struggle with health difficulties. We will not deliver the best for vulnerable children if we do not help them be happy and healthy. And we will not tackle the biggest challenges for educators – like attainment, attendance, behaviour – if we ignore the role mental wellbeing can play. 

It is natural to focus first on treating children with acute needs: we have seen high demand for children and young people’s mental health services and, sadly, we know some young people who need NHS support are waiting longer than we would like. We take this seriously, putting in record investment including an additional £2.3 billion of funding a year by March 2024 for all NHS mental health services. This will help an extra 345,000 children and young people access NHS-funded mental health support, compared to 2018.

However, health provision alone cannot solve this problem. It takes different services and sectors pulling together to make sure children get the support they need. Delivery of our Green Paper on Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision is a great example of this, offering grants to schools and colleges to train senior mental health leads and rolling out Mental Health Support Teams to cover 36 per cent of pupils and learners, and over half by spring 2025. Outside of education, we are making nearly £5 million available to provide earlier, open-access mental health intervention at ten mental health hubs in community locations, offering support and advice to local young people without needing a doctor or school referral, and drawing on support from sectors beyond health. 

Our SEND and alternative provision improvement plan is driving improvements to support children who have special educational needs, including those with needs linked to their mental health. The plan sets out our ambition to establish a single national system that delivers for every child and young person with SEND or in alternative provision so that they enjoy their childhood, achieve good outcomes, and are well prepared for adulthood and employment. As children with SEND often require additional support from a specialist workforce across education, health and care, we are also working to improve the supply, training and deployment of key workforces and have committed to working together with the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to take a joint approach to SEND workforce planning. 

While effective support is crucial, mental health is not simply a problem to “fix” when issues occur. Good mental health is something built over a lifetime, with the foundations laid down in childhood having some of the greatest impact. The range of factors at play, and the different ways we can influence them, are wide ranging. 

Meaningfully improving mental health outcomes will require action by many different stakeholders, working across a child’s life and interacting in the right ways. DHSC has been leading on a cross government effort to create a framework of determinants, which I'd encourage everyone to read when published, and consider how it could help you to shape your work on promoting good wellbeing and preventing mental illness. 

For me, it is helpful to distil this into three key outcomes we want for children and young people. The first of these is children being set up to flourish. If we want young people to be happy and healthy then we must ensure that things like, fun, love, hope and a sense of belonging are part of their daily lives. These aren’t just “nice to have”, they are key to helping all young people achieve their potential, including those facing some of the most serious challenges. In Department for Education we are clear that a great education is fundamental to this – helping young people develop a sense of achievement and hope and a vision for their future – as are opportunities for fun activities that promote wellbeing. Through the National Youth Guarantee, we are working to ensure every young person can access regular activities, adventures away from home and opportunities to volunteer, and in schools we are supporting more pupils to access sport, music and cultural activities. 

The second outcome is young people being equipped to manage when things get tough. The reality is that all children will face challenging times as they grow up. We should not shy away from that, instead seeing childhood as a unique time to help young people learn how to deal with problems in a safe and supported way. We have designed our RSHE curriculum to do just this, giving pupils the understanding and language to recognise and talk about their feelings, equipping them with healthy coping strategies and the knowledge to make positive choices, and ensuring they know who to turn to if they need further support. The way we respond to children who are struggling must also give them skills and confidence to manage similar challenges in the future. That is a key reason why schools should have high expectations for every child when it comes to things like attendance, but also respond with a “support first” approach when issues do arise. When we notice young people who are struggling and work with them to improve, we give them tools and self-belief that they can apply throughout their lives. 

While it would do children a disservice to try shield them from every bump in the road, this cannot be an excuse for complacency about the experiences that can most profoundly damage their mental health. There are some things that no child should experience, and so my third focus is ensuring children are protected from harm and that all of us work together to make this a reality. Our collective efforts on safeguarding are absolutely vital to our approach to child mental health and wellbeing, and everyone working on this issue – across education, health, policing, children’s services and more – should feel proud of the lives they are changing through their interventions. I am also acutely aware that the online world is a huge part of young people’s lives and, unfortunately, one of the places they can often be at risk. That is why our Government has taken action and passed the Online Safety Act, which heralds a new era of internet safety and choice, including placing responsibility on tech companies to stop children seeing harmful material such as bullying, content promoting self-harm and eating disorders, and pornography. 

Finally, I want to stress that these ambitions for children and young people must be underpinned by strong, supportive relationships. It therefore should not be a surprise that our ambitions set out in Stable Homes, Built on Love seek to put loving and stable relationships at the heart of children’s social care, and include the mission that by 2027, every care-experienced child and young person will feel that they have strong, loving relationships in place. Given the vital role kinship carers play in providing a loving, safe, and stable home for children, we are also committed to publishing the first ever national Kinship Care Strategy by the end of 2023.  And beyond the home, schools can be a huge a source of supportive relationships, which means any of us working on child mental health should also be passionate about boosting school attendance levels. My Department has a comprehensive attendance plan to tackle this problem, but we need everyone working on the ground to ask themselves how they could contribute to this cause.

We clearly won’t solve this overnight. I am hopeful, however, that by driving effective partnership working, protecting young people from harm, supporting them to manage the difficulties that come their way, and giving them tools and spaces to flourish, we can start to turn the tide. And we will be even more successful if we can do this in a way which builds and supports the relationships that matter to young people. I am endlessly grateful to those of you working in local communities, supporting our young people, and helping us make progress.

This article and views reflected within it were provided and written by David Johnston OBE MP, Minister for Children, Families and Wellbeing.