Advocate for young minds: Emma Thomas, chief executive, YoungMinds

Derren Hayes talks to Emma Thomas, chief executive of charity YoungMinds.

Emma Thomas joined YoungMinds last July following the departure of Sarah Brennan after 11 years at the helm of the children's mental health charity. She joins at a time of major reforms amid significant challenges, with new school-based mental health teams due to be established but rising concerns over long waiting times for child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS).

The Mental Health Green Paper includes plans for mental health support teams in every school, but only a quarter of England is to be covered by 2022. Does implementation need to be quicker?

Schools are a prime space for children to learn early on about wellbeing and mental health, and there is a role for schools in intervening when problems first emerge as well as signposting or referring to specialist services when necessary. The mental health support teams fit with our calls for greater mental health support in schools, and we welcome the new trailblazer sites that will test the approach. However, at most only 25 per cent of the country will be covered by 2022/23 - so many children will not receive the support they need.

The Mental Health Support teams can play a key role to remove the pressure on schools to be the sole support for these young people, yet we believe they could also complement existing voluntary sector provision to help plug the gap of community support for young people.

How does YoungMinds help schools support pupils' mental health?

Last year, we provided practical training that is clinically informed to more than 6,000 teachers in more than 900 schools. It tackles issues such as eating disorders and the impact of social media - the aim is to enable teachers to provide the best possible support to their pupils.

Last January, we launched our 360° School Community for school professionals to receive advice and resources about supporting children's mental health as well as share best practice. More than 6,000 professionals have already signed up to receive ongoing information and advice. It reflects the fact that teachers are often the ones that children turn to first for advice and to share concerns."

What other changes are needed to support mental health in schools?

The government has committed to introducing mandatory lessons on healthy relationships and online safety by 2020 as part of relationship and sex education and health education, but we don't know yet what this will look like. What's crucial now is that we see wellbeing becoming a priority in the Ofsted framework, so that schools are incentivised and rewarded for their work in supporting the mental health of their students.

The 2015 Future in Mind strategy injected £1.4bn into the children's mental health system, but do you share concerns that funding is being used for other services?

Our freedom of information requests have shown clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) have definitely increased funding for CAMHS over the last four years. But 43 per cent of CCGs are not spending their full allocation on children, with the money instead being spent on other priorities. There is a clear need there - the additional funding was only going to treat one in three who need support - and we must ensure the money is being spent properly.

We also need to find new approaches to intervening earlier to prevent the need for specialist interventions. We know that there is a lack of alternative support for many young people who do not meet the eligibility thresholds for CAMHS. For those not at school, this means we are leaving them to fend for themselves, which is unacceptable.

With the green paper focused on developing school-based services, where will the investment in community services come from?

We've woken up to the scale of needs and that increasing numbers of young people are living in challenging environments. The NHS long-term plan, which is to be published imminently, offers the chance for more investment in children's mental health services so the system is better able to cope. NHS chief executive Simon Stevens has said children's mental health will be a priority of the plan and there's a commitment that the percentage of the mental health budget spent on children and young people will rise.

What plans do you have for developing YoungMinds to address emerging challenges?

We need to continue to fight for the rights of young people and their families. Empowering young people to use their experiences to make change for others like them is in our DNA and we need to look at increasing those opportunities. Digital can help us do that - particularly to overcome geographical issues. My background is developing user-centred design approaches, and I want us to continue to focus on how we help young people access support particularly to help tackle the "black hole" of alternative support for young people. I also want us to continue to work in partnership with other organisations so that there is a strong coherent voice across the children's mental health sector.


  • July 2018 - present: Chief executive, YoungMinds
  • August 2017 - February 2018: Interim director of membership and communications, London Youth
  • August 2016 - July 2018: Consultant for a range of children's charities
  • April 2011 - April 2015: Chief executive, The Mix (formerly YouthNet)
  • January 2010 - March 2011: Marketing & communications director, The Mix
  • July 2001 - January 2010: Marketing, communications and audience division, BBC

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