The urgent need to tackle growing children’s mental health emergency

Beth Thomas
Friday, November 19, 2021

Beth Thomas had serious mental health problems as a child and teenager, she now leads a mentoring scheme at the Social Enterprise, Our Place Support in the West Midlands. She uses her insights to inspire and support others who’ve experienced trauma and issues with their mental health.

Here she writes in response to a recent report calling for action to tackle a growing mental health emergency among children.

Falling through the cracks is easy to say but let me tell you when it’s your own life it hurts, sometimes for a lifetime. I know, I’ve been there. For over 20 years I have struggled with my own mental health. It's been a long, and often lonely road. As a child with mental health issues, I was ignored. I felt isolated. That I was the only one. That no-one cared.

A recent report published by the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition suggests that if the government is serious about ‘levelling up’ it must deal with the current child mental health emergency. The report acknowledges that many organisations are struggling to meet current demand for children and young people’s mental health services. 

As the co-ordinator of the Our Place Mentoring Scheme which supports children and young people with their emotional and mental well-being this is all too apparent.

Over the years our service has seen a significant shift from prevention to crisis response. From an organisation supporting children with issues such as friendship and self-esteem to supporting children as young as six with mental health struggles. Many of these children have not met the criteria for statutory intervention. As a result, we are supporting children as young as nine with suicidal thoughts and behaviours. However, despite this shift we are delivering these vital services on a shoestring budget.

School was just a blur for me. How was I meant to concentrate on algebra when I didn’t want to live? I went from being a straight A student to being frog marched lesson to lesson and being locked in a store cupboard so I wouldn't run away. I had a truancy officer, I’ll never forget he wore socks with sandals, escorting me to school. Detentions, report cards, being told off and shamed. I was being punished and disciplined for having mental health issues by the very professionals who had a duty of care for my well-being. Although many schools have since adopted a much improved whole-school approach to child mental health, just as pupils’ mental health needs increase, perversely, school budgets get tighter.

I began drinking at the age of 12 to numb out the pain. Did it make me feel better? No. Did it solve my problems? No. Did I continue to do it anyway? Yes. For many years actually. For so long, I thought alcohol was my friend, the thing that would guarantee me a good time, when in fact it was only serving to destroy friendships, relationships, including the relationship I had with myself.

Living in youth hostels for four years was arguably when I was at my darkest. Institutionalised within those four walls. Rooms fitted with those heavy fire doors which hid a multitude of teen desperation. I probably reached my lowest point at 16 years old.

I was so angry that I had been failed by the system. Why wasn't anyone helping me? My issues were swept under the carpet by those who were meant to be helping me. For many years I had to unpick a tangled web of desperation, shame, guilt and embarrassment as a result of childhood trauma, sexual violence, bullying and homelessness. The thoughts in childhood lasting well into adulthood that I was not good enough. That I am unlovable and that my life was not worth living.

But there’s hope.

I came to the realisation that I wanted to live but I didn't want the life I had. I came to the realisation that the only person who could change that was me. That my life is what I make it. That life is worth living.

I returned to education in my twenties to make up for lost time in school and I am now studying a Masters in Child and Adolescent Mental Wellbeing. Next year will also be my 10-year anniversary at the Our Place Mentoring Scheme where I continue to support children and young people when they need it most. The support I had from my family, friends and work made my life possible. I learnt that I not only needed to be open and honest with myself about my mental health, but I also needed to be open and honest with them too.

It's been nearly three years since I last had suicidal thoughts. After 15 or so years battling to have my voice heard by a revolving door of GPs, I received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder which has been life-changing. I knew if I truly wanted to get better and lead a fulfilled life, I needed to stop drinking. I am now six-months without alcohol.

I know that my story is one of many. I’ve heard countless tales of adults who struggled in silence when they were younger. I continue to hear countless tales of children falling through the cracks of the current mental health system. I am determined that the children of today, adults of tomorrow don’t fall through the cracks like I did.

Early intervention is essential in reducing long-term mental health issues and preventing children reaching crisis point. We need to equip children with the tools and strategies to look after their mental health from an early age. We shouldn’t be shifting the goal posts when it comes to children and their mental health. When a child says they are struggling, we must listen. We must act. Not doing anything is not acceptable, the long-term implications catastrophic.

Beth Thomas is the mentoring scheme co-ordinator and safeguarding director at Our Place Support in the West Midlands. She is currently studying an MSC in child and adolescent mental wellbeing. Follow her on Twitter @Beffy86

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