Why early intervention is vital for children’s mental health
Friday, September 30, 2022
One of the biggest impacts we are seeing in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic is the growing mental health crisis our children are facing.
Mental health referrals for children increased by more than half during the pandemic and it shows no signs of slowing down; with vulnerable children in some areas being told they’ll have to wait months and sometimes years to access mental health care.
In the 15 years since SELFA children’s charity began, I’ve never seen so many children and young people dealing with mental health issues as there are right now.
When my daughter was eight years old she started to show signs of emotional distress, both at school and at home.
She went from being a happy, energetic girl to three exclusions from primary school within a year. Her teachers told me they didn’t know what to do with her anymore, so I asked if she could be referred for counselling support through school.
This was six years before the pandemic and even then I was told a mental health referral would take up to six months, I asked for support from the local authority but I was told that she did not reach their thresholds.
I cannot imagine how the parents feel who are told they could wait years for support.
We were lucky though, with a small amount of savings I could investigate other options. I worked for a children’s charity so I knew where to look for help, who to ask, what kind of support was out there and what might work for her.
We found a private psychotherapist who would work with her, she lived 30 miles away. I looked into cutting my hours back at work so I could take her to appointments. I also researched how I could adapt my parenting to support her on that journey.
I dread to think where she’d be now if we hadn’t got her that support; if I hadn’t been willing to put my child’s mental health before everything else; but I’m almost certain she wouldn’t have just completed nine GCSEs in a mainstream school. My daughter is 16 now and thriving, her mental health is good.
Early intervention isn’t there for some of the families we work with at SELFA though.
I’ve spoken to parents with children who are a similar age to my daughter and they’ve felt completely abandoned by our massively underfunded mental health system, as the NHS and children’s social care services face the greatest workforce crisis in history.
One mother whose child is on the waiting list for CAHMS (NHS child and adolescent mental health services) said to me “I’ve been told there is no point calling as they have no staff and they weren’t prepared to give me a date for anything to do with our referral, even though other agencies have said it’s urgent”.
Another parent whose nine-year-old has been waiting months for a referral to another service which was commissioned to provide early mental support said, “we were finally accepted but there are no staff in this area so we were offered a video call or a telephone appointment”.
We are seeing investment in mental health crisis services across England, which SELFA is proud to be part of, but unless we increase capacity for early intervention at community level we’ll never be able to meet this need.
So what is the solution to this? How can the system change so that children and their families aren’t feeling powerless against a complex heath and care system?
When I’ve spoken to parents, carers and young people they’ve said they want to access support closer to home from people they know and trust, or as Sir Michael Marmot, one of the world’s leading authorities on public health, puts it: “Empowerment of individuals and communities is absolutely central. Getting the community involved in organising their own destiny has got to be a key part of it.”
We need to move toward improving the health of children and young people and acting sooner to help those with preventable conditions, including many mental health issues. Early intervention is the key to this success; ensuring children and young people have timely access to mental health support where they live.
My hope is that every child has the same access to the tailored support that my daughter did, and still has through having me as her mother.
We need our health and care professionals to see parents and carers as active partners and involve them in conversations about supporting their child’s mental health and wellbeing; providing training and support to us in our local communities so that we are seen as part of the solution.
I spoke to my daughter about the role I had played in her recovery, and what the one thing was that had the biggest impact on her mental journey.
We discussed the psychotherapy, family therapy and mentoring programmes she’d been on and the difference they’d made in her life, but the most poignant thing she said was: “It was you mum, because when you changed, everything changed”, and if that isn’t endorsement of the role parents and carers can play in supporting their child’s mental health, I’m not sure what is.
Emma Pears is the founder and chief executive of SELFA* children’s charity based in the Yorkshire Dales and is well-known for her campaigning on children and young people's mental health in rural communities.
*Formerly ‘Skipton Extended Learning for All’