No Child Left Behind: Why every child needs access to the right kind of support for them
As the school bells ring again to signal the start of a new academic year, for many children and young people in the UK, this doesn't symbolise the anticipated return to a familiar routine. Instead, it highlights a significant challenge they are confronting: the struggle with their mental and emotional health.
Mental health issues among children and young people have been escalating at an alarming rate. According to NHS figures, referrals to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) witnessed a staggering 76% increase since 2019. However, what is more concerning is the grim reality that support for these young minds is far from sufficient. The waiting lists stretch on for what seems like an eternity, putting their futures on a perilous trajectory while simultaneously straining the country’s health, care, and education systems. At the other end, the low intensity mental health provision offered by many Mental Health Support Teams (MHSTs) and Children's Wellbeing Practitioners (CWPs) is not able to meet the needs of those children experiencing a reaction to trauma, or self-harming, or struggling with disordered eating.
This is where the NCPS's Access to Counselling For Every Child campaign becomes pivotal. It calls for a radical overhaul in how we approach young people's mental health by emphasising child-led care that should be accessible in all schools, primary care settings, and through remote platforms for those who need it.
The concept of child-led mental health care isn’t just another academic abstraction. It acknowledges the agency of young people in managing their mental health and aims to provide them with the tools and resources necessary to do so. This approach is incredibly relevant for a crucial group often labelled the 'Missing Middle': children who have issues too complex for intervention by CWPs/MHSTs but are not considered severe enough for CAMHS services.
This gap in care can have devastating repercussions. The ‘Missing Middle’ can often feel abandoned by a system that doesn’t know where to place them. Frustration mounts for both the child and their caregivers as they get stuck in a maze of referrals and consultations, while the actual issue continues to escalate, untreated. This may lead to a young person needing to access crisis services who may not have reached that point had they had the right support at the right time.
The flexibility of the campaign's proposal—to extend remote mental health services—should not be overlooked. This is particularly relevant for groups like children in care, those unable to attend school for physical, emotional, or mental health reasons, and those in Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. A lack of geographical constraints ensures that these vulnerable groups can maintain continuity in care; something that is vital for building relationships based on trust and, therefore, for effective mental health support.
As we push for a comprehensive strategy to address the mental health of young people in the UK, it’s essential that this doesn’t become a mere section in a broader plan for physical health conditions. Mental health needs its spotlight, its investment, and - most critically - a strategy that is nuanced and empathetic to the complex emotional worlds of children and young people.
It’s time for the government to pay heed. For many children, the return to school is fraught with emotional complexities that can't be addressed solely within the confines of the current offering mental health support. By embracing the tenets of our Access to Counselling For Every Child campaign, we can provide young people with the support they need, when they need it, and where they need it. And it's not just about safeguarding their mental health; it's about investing in the future of our society.