Children’s mental health: One of the most pressing issues of our time

Mark Austin

Former ITV News presenter

To report on the crisis in children’s mental health, as I have done repeatedly on ITV News, is one thing. To have it crash headlong into my family with devastating consequences was something else altogether.

For two or three years we were in despair as someone we love descended alarmingly quickly into the bleak, unremittingly dark world of depression and anxiety.

One moment bristling with energy and ambition. The next, there but gone, shrinking away, hollow-eyed, dying inside and a pitiful shadow of their former self. It broke our hearts and it very nearly broke our family.

The worst part of it was not being able to help. And that was largely because it was incredibly difficult to find help. There is an epidemic in teenage mental health problems in this country; and yet there is very little evidence of a government response that in any way equates to the scale of the problem.

More than 850,000 children and young people have been diagnosed with mental health problems in the UK, and how many more have had no formal diagnosis but still suffer, often in silence unwilling to share their despair?

Mark Austin was named RTS Presenter of the Year in both 2014 and 2015. Credit: ITV News

But so many of these youngsters fall through the cracks in an inadequately resourced system of care. So often children have to wait months, even years to get real help. So often, where help can be found, it is literally hundreds of miles from home, involving parents in lengthy treks across the country just to see their child. And so often the help is temporary, piecemeal and uncoordinated.

Things have to change and change soon. The government must take seriously calls to give mental health the same level of commitment as physical health. One of their major problems, it seems to me, is that 18-year-olds have a particularly raw deal. Too old for the children’s system but often unable to cope with being thrust into an adult system that often means mixing with seriously ill, long term psychiatric patients. It is simply unsatisfactory.

What is needed are special in-patient centres for patients up to 21. Girls - for it is mainly though not exclusively girls - with eating disorders like anorexia need immediate urgent care available to them. They need to be with girls of their same age.

What is needed are walk-in centres where help is immediate and records kept of the visit. We must not let these children fall through the net. They will die. They do die.

The Duchess of Cambridge delivers a speech at the Place2Be Wellbeing in Schools Awards in London. Credit: PA

The scale of suicide among young men has reached record levels. It is frightening and testimony to a system of care that is palpably not working.

In our case we could afford private care, we had health insurance and even when that ran out we were extremely lucky to find a nearby NHS unit that just happened to have a place and just happened to make the difference. Good people who cared. We were so lucky to find it.

But my point is this: what happens to those who don’t find a place like that? They are few and far between. What happens to those who can’t go private, those whose family can’t support them at home? What happens to them? All too often the answer is nothing.

The yawning gaps in care are sometimes filled by charities going to great lengths to help struggling youngsters. Charities like Place2Be, who supply trained counsellors to schools across the country in the hope of intervening early and effectively to prevent problems becoming entrenched and long-term. The success of such projects is to be applauded but it also puts government to shame.

Children’s mental health is one of the most pressing issues of our time. We can either acknowledge it and act, or we can let down and betray an entire generation. And that would be unforgivable.

Mark Austin is a judge for Place2Be’s Wellbeing in Schools Awards.

Place2Be’s Wellbeing in Schools Awards, held on Tuesday 22 November, celebrate and recognise ambassadors of positive mental health and highlight the unique contribution that school communities make to the wellbeing of local communities.

For more information,visit Place2Be’s site.