Lucy has co-written a blog on child mental health, together with Labour's Shadow Minister for Mental Health, Luciana Berger.
First published in the Huffington Post on 8th February 2016
It is said that school days are the best days of our life. Adults looking back on their life often feel nostalgic for the simple joy of being young, the sense of wonder that accompanies learning about the world in which we live, spending the best part of the day with friends, and without having to worry about earning money or paying bills.
The reality today is that young people are growing up in a fast-paced world that is constantly changing around them. Pressures that didn't exist fifty, thirty or even ten years ago now form a huge part of their everyday lives.
Parents are increasingly worried their children are coming home from school stressed due to the constant pressure of exams and assessment. Issues at home with family relationships, challenges with adolescence and growing up, not to mention the additional difficulties LGBT young people can face at home and school, mean that children and young people can often feel worried and isolated.
Young people must also get to grips with the realities of modern life, whilst learning to navigate their way safely around new media and plan ahead for an uncertain future. Information sharing via the internet means that they will be long reminded of and held responsible for their behaviour as children well into their adult life. The ease of uploading photos online and access to 'thinspiration' websites is exacerbating eating disorders and reinforcing unrealistic expectations of body image. Incidents of 'cyberbullying' are on the rise, with more than one in ten children now saying they have experienced it.
This is adding to a growing crisis in the mental health of the next generation. Among teenagers, rates of depression and anxiety have soared by 70 per cent over the past 25 years. One in 10 children now has a diagnosable mental health condition - around three children in every classroom. There are rising numbers of referrals to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS), coupled with long waits for treatment and high thresholds for care. As a result, many children and young people with mental health problems are not getting the help they need early enough and are becoming so ill they need hospital care. The number of children turning up in A&E with mental health problems is now more than double what it was in 2010. Despite this, Ministers have admitted they won't spend the full £250million they promised for children's mental health services this year.
Schools have a key role to play in ensuring the problems pupils may be experiencing are spotted early and tackled, yet the support, resources and leadership they receive on this issue from Government is not good enough. Staff in schools are desperately trying to manage the growing crisis in young people's mental health and the decreasing lack of access to expert support is making their jobs so much harder.
A survey out today from the National Association of Headteachers and children's mental health charity Place2Be found that two thirds of primary school leaders find it difficult to refer children to local mental health professionals and three quarters say they lack the funds to provide the kind of mental health support they'd like for their pupils.
Left untreated, the consequences of poor mental health among children and young people can be devastating for a school community, and long-lasting. Some three quarters of adult mental health problems are present before the age of 18.
Despite the fact that mental illness is a fact of life, like cancer or heart disease, a deeply embedded stigma and taboo is still associated with it. This needs to be tackled in school when students are young to prevent far-reaching consequences. Both teachers and young people need to be supported to spot the signs to ensure they seek help early on. Sadly, this Government is not doing enough to ensure this happens. The consequences of this inaction will be considerable: young people will suffer and our society will pay for their loss of potential. Estimates suggest that the cost to our country of mental health problems is now close to £105billion a year.
Today, at the start of children's mental health week, we have a real opportunity to raise awareness of this growing issue and apply pressure on the Government to take meaningful action to tackle it. All of us have a responsibility if we want to make sure our young people have the support they need to develop the skills to cope with the difficulties that modern life throws at them.
It is long overdue that we send the message to the next generation that they don't have to cope on their own.
Lucy Powell is the Shadow Secretary of State for Education
Luciana Berger MP is the Shadow Cabinet Minister for Mental Health