‘Hunt has the gall to tell us that mental health services are failing children and adolescents.’ Photograph: Con Tanasiuk/Design Pics Inc
Actions speak louder than words is perhaps the maxim that governments should live by; that governments should have as their desktop screensavers or written on Post-its on ministerial fridges. It came to mind when Theresa May made her Milibandesque inaugural speech as prime minister, and it came to mind again last week when Jeremy Hunt told us that the NHS is failing Britain’s young people on mental health. “Too many tragedies” occur because of weaknesses in the children and adolescent mental health services (Camhs), Hunt said.
It’s a popular opinion. So popular in fact, that people who work in Camhs have been saying it for years. Ditto the individuals who use the service, or would use the service if they were not languishing on waiting lists. Or those who are put off even trying to enter the system, or don’t know what help is available. Not to mention the parents and guardians of these young people.
Hunt says services need to intervene earlier. He is absolutely right. Will he tell us next that people need air to breathe and plants need water to thrive? And why then, has the government he is a member of, and the previous one, overseen the decimation of mental health services, and in particular, those dedicated to helping young people?
Earlier this month the Guardian revealed that 235,000 young people in the UK are receiving mental health care, and that’s a figure based on responses from 60% of trusts, so the real number will be higher. Figures released by NHS Digital show a shocking rise in young people self harming, including an increase of 42% over the past decade in the number of girls treated as inpatients after self poisoning. Almost two-thirds of headteachers are concerned about depression in pupils. One in 10 five to 16-year-olds are thought to have a mental illness. Time and again we are warned that young people’s mental health is an area that needs huge investment to prevent a generation of unwell adults. Prof Dame Sue Bailey, former head of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, has called the situation a “car crash waiting to happen”.
And yet freedom of information requests find that one in five local authorities have either frozen or cut their Camhs budgets every single year since 2010. From the same year to 2015, £50m was cut from Camhs across the board. Funding promises do not make it to the frontline. The NSPCC found that a fifth of young people are turned away from Camhs services for not meeting the threshold for help. Years and years of the falling axe; years and years of avoidable deaths and futures derailed.
Now Hunt has the gall to tell us that mental health services are failing children and adolescents. They are. But it’s not, for the most part, the fault of the psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, community psychiatric nurses and all of the support and admin staff who make up the mental health services; they often work after hours and take on additional duties for no extra pay. Services are failing thanks to budgets being cut, departments merged or closed and a lack of staff, all courtesy of a government that seems to think the public will forget it has been in charge for this duration.
It is not uncommon for unwell youngsters to spend nights in police cells because of a lack of available beds. It is even more typical for young people to be offered inpatient beds many miles away from their homes, or on adult wards, or to turn 18 and slip through the gap between Camhs and the adult system.
Hunt’s rhetoric towards junior doctors will not help the dire take-up of psychiatry posts. And now Brexit will deter the overseas staff that large parts of the mental health services rely on.
Of course, episodes of mental illness are horrific at any point in a person’s life. Depression in older people has reached crisis levels too, but what is especially devastating about children and teenagers becoming ill is that it can knock them off course for life.
This happened to me, and is the sole reason I did not sit A-levels or earn a degree. Because I became ill at 16, and did not manage to access proper treatment until years later. I am, despite this, lucky. The kindness of people and their willingness to understand and appreciate the different road I have taken (unwillingly), and to spot potential, has meant that I, eventually, got to where I wanted to go – but it often didn’t look as though things would turn out this way and the effects are life-lasting.
So I agree with Hunt. He is entirely correct: Camhs is weak. But when you starve something, neglect it, take away everything that makes something strong, it will inevitably become weak. The truth is the UK could afford to give more money to the NHS, which spends less than many other countries on its health system. As Simon Stevens, head of NHS England, has said, even if the £1.25bn that has been “pledged” to young people’s mental health services is delivered, Camhs would still only be in a position to help one in three youngsters in mental health need.
After the leave campaign stood in front of its lie-on-wheels promising £350m per week to the NHS, to hear Theresa May point blank refuse the NHS the money it needs is enough to turn the stomach. Hunt may be a wealthy man, but to hear him cast aspersions on a service that the Tories have stripped of all resources and funding since it came to power? That’s rich.