Of all the issues that I face as an MP, the one that keeps me awake at night is the epidemic of poor mental health amongst our children and young people. As a dad whose children are currently in education, I empathise with those young people, and their parents, who are struggling in the face of extreme pressure (both in school and from wider society) and who do not have the necessary support structures in place. In terms of the challenge this poses to our public health policy, I genuinely fear we are facing a ticking time-bomb unless there are radical improvements in how the health and education systems support our young people.
The statistics around young people’s mental health are harrowing. 10% of Barnsley children aged 5-16 have a clinically significant mental health issue, with 50% of lifelong mental health issues starting before the age of 14. Over three-quarters of young people in Barnsley have felt stressed or anxious in the last 12 months. The most recent figures show over 200 hospital admissions for self-harming in Barnsley alone – significantly higher than the national and regional averages. And, across the country, around 250,000 children have reported that they feel unhappy with their lives.
I have always said that where you grow up shouldn’t determine where you end up. That ethos is what drives my work as the MP for Barnsley Central and as South Yorkshire Mayor in terms of providing a world-class education for our children – to give them the best possible start in life. That’s why I’ve invested, in partnership with Sheffield Hallam University, in the ‘Children’s University’ – expanding it to all of our region. It’s why I’ve campaigned for investment in early years provision and to keep our Sure Start centres open, to support children and families from the very start of their lives. And it’s why, when the additional powers are unlocked by signing the South Yorkshire devolution deal, I will have the ability to invest in both Further and Post-19 Education. But there’s no point in transforming our education system if young people aren’t able to access that provision because of their mental health.
That means there is an urgent need to ensure that education provision and mental health services are seamlessly integrated. With fewer than 10% of children finding it easy to get support from diagnosis through to treatment; and just 14% being seen by a Mental Health professional within 4 weeks – we need to invest in our Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services so they can provide vital care and support. We’ve heard a lot about ensuring parity of esteem between physical and mental health within society and within the NHS. It wouldn’t be acceptable for a patient to be left waiting months and, in some cases, years for treatment for a physical health condition; so why should that be the case for mental health assessments?
It’s a cliché to say that young people are our future – they are our present too, but they need to be supported by good-quality, properly funded mental health services otherwise we will face a real public health crisis in the not too distant future. Alongside good mental health support, it’s vital that parents and families are able to talk about mental health with their children. Barnsley Council’s ground-breaking #AlrightPal is doing great work in breaking down the stigma around mental health for adults. We now need to ensure that everyone can talk about their mental health and feel able to ask for, and get, the help and support they need.