Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab)
I am pleased to have the opportunity, after the last contribution, to return the discussion to the topic under debate, and to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) and the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for securing the debate on which there has been, until the last contribution, a great deal of consensus across the House.
Every year, as part of my annual community consultation at the start of the year, I meet school students in each of the secondary schools in my constituency. Maybe this is my naivety, but the first I time did that I was genuinely shocked. When I asked them, “What is the most important thing we could be doing to change your lives?” they told me in each of the schools that it was to provide access to mental health support. Over the past 10 years, I have heard the same message year after year.
As with so many issues, the pandemic has brought this crisis into sharper relief. In Sheffield, I have heard from worried parents, teachers and health professionals who tell me about the scale of the problem with child and adolescent mental health and the lack of available services. Last Friday, I discussed the position with those at Sheffield Children’s Hospital. They are worried. For the most serious cases, they are deeply concerned about the lack of psychiatric beds for young people. They have worked hard to narrow the gap between referral to CAMHS and first appointment, but it is still about five months—five months—for that critical initial intervention. That situation is reflected across the country.
The former Children’s Commissioner highlighted in 2021 the fact that over 500,000 children and young people were referred to CAMHS in the previous two years. Of those, approximately 3,500 either had their referral closed or were still on the waiting list at the end of the reporting period. The number of A&E attendances by young people aged 18 or under with a recorded diagnosis of a psychiatric condition has tripled since 2010. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) made a striking contribution about the number of suicides. Our schools are caught in the middle of this crisis, desperate to support their students but without the resources to do so. Prior to the pandemic, one third of schools did not provide any in-school mental health support. Those that do provide support have to dip into their teaching budgets, distracting from other priorities to do so. That is why parents, along with professionals, believe that access to counselling is so important.
Of course, it is not just about counselling. We need to be ahead of the problem and view mental wellbeing in the same way as we view physical wellbeing. Our Healthy Minds and Mental Health Support Team in Sheffield works with local schools to develop a culture of emotional wellbeing among young people, which includes feeling safe and valued, with social connectedness and structure in their lives. Young people want to be heard and to have staff who understand that other things might be going on in their lives and who know how to listen. That cannot be a bolt-on; it has to be embedded in a school’s culture. For example, if a young person is feeling anxious about exams, there are therapeutic interventions to help them to manage that stress. But time and funding to do that is vital to its success.
When young people are struggling, early intervention is key, helping them to deal with the problems that they face when they face them and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) pointed out, taking the pressure off services further down the line that would be drawn in if the problem got worse. That is why the Local Government Association recently urged the Government to fully fund counselling services in all state-funded secondary schools, providing immediate support. It called for £100 million a year to
“ensure access to a…counsellor for at least two days a week for more than 90 per cent of schools.”
The Government’s response is to ask more of already overstretched school staff. The plans for mental health support teams are welcome, but they do not go far enough. Encouraging mental health leads in schools to undertake training to help to fill the gap by equipping teachers to recognise problems and point students towards help just will not do. As the assistant principal of one of my local secondary schools said to me yesterday:
“Frankly I do not need to be trained in how to signpost young people to mental health care providers, I need the money to be invested in providing the actual mental health care.”
Clearly, support does not stop with counselling. How will CAMHS waiting times be addressed? How many more mental health professionals are being trained? As Members on both sides of the House have consistently said, preventive and early intervention is vital. Half of all mental health problems manifest by the age of 14. It is striking that NHS England recognises that the current investment in children and young people’s mental health meets only 33% of need. That is truly shocking. What if that were to apply to other illnesses? Is there any other kind of epidemic that we would allow to run rampant among our children? Is there any other type of illness that we would let lie untreated without concern for the impact on future generations?
As chair of the all-party group on students, I co-led an inquiry into the provision of mental health support for 16 to 21-year-olds moving into FE and HE. That demonstrated the numbers who were transitioning into HE and FE without previously having had support. When the Minister rises to say what the Government have done, I hope that he will recognise what more needs to be done, as has been reflected in contributions from Members on both sides of the House.