Earlier this year, Prince Harry came forward to say that he had sought counselling to come to terms with the death of his mother. It was quite a stark realisation for many people that someone so young and so privileged could be affected by mental health issues.
To me, it was less of a surprise. Mental health continues to attract some sort of ridiculous stigma, despite its total disregard for background, circumstance or wealth.
It did, however, highlight that particular time in our lives when mental health problems can first present themselves and induce our personal and sometimes confused responses. While our time at school can be a very enjoyable one, for many it also comes with several hurdles to overcome. Mental health issues that begin in childhood can cause significant stress and disruption to individuals and families that, if not addressed, can continue into adulthood.
Undoubtedly, we have come a long way in reducing this stigma around mental health, and the pace quickens still. However, there is more we must do to improve the lives of our young people in our communities, and in particular there is more we can do to break down barriers to accessing treatment for mental health.
In my constituency, Marine Academy Plymouth has impressed me deeply, along with Plymouth City Council, in its desire to see improved support for those suffering from mental health issues with a programme for early intervention by child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS). Plymouth schools funded the equivalent of two Band 6 workers who have been recruited into the main CAMHS service and embedded as part of the new way of working through the wider transformation plan.
The Health Select Committee, in its recent report on children and young people’s mental health, encouraged the government to go further on the inclusion of mental health training in initial teacher training as a compulsory core module, and train current staff as part of their professional development to improve awareness. I would echo that recommendation, as well as that of rolling out the coordination of health and education services nationally.
By the government’s own evaluation, the pilot to provide joint training to schools and CAMHS staff to test having single points of contact, and how it can improve referrals to specialist services, was a success. However, I am never a fan of marking one’s own homework – the proof is how it feels for our young people, and we have some way to go.
I believe one of the fundamental barriers to ensuring young people have access to mental health support is a lack of knowledge surrounding care pathways. Improving communication and understanding between the day-to-day support staff of young people, the teachers and the specialist CAMHS staff will hopefully build on the positive results of the pilot scheme.
There are also legislative challenges to overcome. While many police forces, including my own in Devon and Cornwall, along with their counterparts in the health sector, have made great efforts to stop those suffering from mental health issues being detained in police cells, parliament needs to take decisive action and legislate to prevent this from happening in all but the most extreme circumstances.
With the amount of parliamentary time required to ensure a smooth and orderly Brexit, I need to be cautious about recommending reforms requiring time on the floor of the House. However, I strongly believe that new regulation should be brought forward to implement standardised waiting times for a whole range of mental health conditions, such as psychosis and eating disorders. Presently, the wait for treatment can be long and vary wildly across the country. This sort of postcode lottery has been battled in the cases of other illnesses, and mental healthcare should be no exception.
Much of what I am advocating has been voiced already. But the fact that so many join the cause and yet the pace of change only gradually increases suggests to me that parity between mental and physical health remains some way off.
Dealing with our perceptions of mental health and the stigma surrounding it probably remains our single most limiting factor. Upstream, early interventions can have profound effects, but they require a mindset change from those commissioning care.
I think we are getting there in Plymouth, but the pace of change is too slow. The old adage is that prevention is better than cure. We know by now that it is certainly cheaper, and that – if nothing else – should grab the government’s attention through Brexit.