Blog: Mental health – we’re missing our window of opportunity

9 May 2017

It’s mental health awareness week and in the past couple of years, the discussion on mental health has changed dramatically. It has transformed from a stigmatised condition shrouded in silence to a topic discussed openly by the future king.  Awareness of the issue has exploded with politicians of all colours agreeing it is time to end discrimination and boost funding.

Yet it feels like mental health is on a precipice. Whilst it’s fast becoming celebrities’ favourite cause, the focus is not so far matched by funding. We hear more and more about how mental health services are at breaking point and this is particularly true of provision aimed at young people.

Last week the education and health select committees in Parliament published a report into the impact of cuts on mental health services for young people. It was pretty stark:

“We know that more than half of all mental ill health starts before the age of 15 and it is therefore a false economy to cut services for children and young people.”

Yet head teachers report that school counsellors and other mental health support is regarded as an easy cut, and provision is being drastically reduced in schools.

This removes both the support for young people who have a diagnosed mental health condition as well as the early warning system that can flag up young people who may be at risk in the future. Given that half of young people suffering poor mental health will go on to suffer as an adult too, it removes the window of opportunity we have to support these young people to manage their condition effectively before it is exacerbated for life.

We should regard the whole of childhood as one long window of opportunity. An opportunity to vaccinate our young people with the resilience to handle life as an adult. Positive mental health comes from many things but one of which is developing the coping mechanisms to handle life’s many ups and downs.

Youth work can instil in young people the kind of self esteem and resilience which contributes to good mental health. Youth workers support young people in their social and emotional development, help them understand themselves and other people around them.

Youth work provision that is open to young people who want it needs to be a cornerstone of young people’s mental health provision.

Currently, spend on young people’s mental health makes up a fraction of the whole mental health spend – just 6p in every £1. Resourcing needs to increase and, in addition to better services for young people suffering, we need a renewed focus on keeping young people mentally healthy. We need to recognise these services as an essential investment. Youth work has a big part to play.

The return, in the form of better mental health for adults as well as young people, is surely worth the investment.