Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP)
Children’s Mental Health Week 2022 comes at a time when the mental health of children and young people is discussed as never before. When I worked in mental health as a psychologist, the stigma was often so great across the generations that no one wanted to discuss mental health. That can never be allowed to happen again. No one should ever silence anyone on mental health, because speaking about it is key to wellbeing.
I welcome the debate today as mental health spokesperson for the Scottish National party but also as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on psychology. In the latter role, I have heard from young people from right across the United Kingdom. They tell me that the focus on mental health is required, as is ringfenced funding. For too long, children’s mental health has been a Cinderella service. It should not be because, the truth be known, children’s mental health is key to our society’s wellbeing for years to come.
It is clear that the pandemic has had a massive impact on the level of anxiety, depression, thoughts of self-harm and social isolation that many children experienced. They have had to process a life-changing event: the pandemic. Now they live with the impact of covid-19 on their childhood, and they will do that for the rest of their lives. We must recognise the trauma and loss for many, and that their childhood has been markedly different from that of other generations. Due to the restrictions, many children missed educational, social and developmental milestones. Many very young children missed vital infant socialisation experiences. As a result, social anxiety, depression and developmental delay is now a feature of many young people’s lives.
For children already struggling with mental health issues, treatment may have been interrupted, exacerbating their distress. For those needing help with an arising mental health issue for the first time, help was not as accessible as it should have been. For those children who have learning difficulties or disabilities, restrictions also meant that they often lost their additional crucial support. Those needs must be met. Children are the most vulnerable in our society and their needs must be prioritised and addressed at this crucial time. That is why it is vital that we recover from the pandemic with a children and young people-led recovery plan.
Children and young people must be involved in how their care is designed, choosing in what modality it is presented and having the option of varying levels of intensity to address mild to severe presentations. Mental health must be viewed as a continuum, with the treatment that best fits.
It is important to say that children’s learning is very different now from when I and many other MPs were at school. It is vital to ask children what works in terms of online technology and innovation. It saddens me that we must also be on top of the algorithms that are online. It is extremely concerning that when someone types in “self-harm” or “eating disorder”, many sites perpetuate harmful content rather than directing young children towards help and assistance. Our online harms Bill must address that. Just last week I discussed those concerns with developers of a new, positive online mental health platform for young children, called Hidden Strength, but I was shocked to hear that harmful content is being enabled and advanced by platforms.
It is exciting that in Scotland a new mental health innovation hub is being developed this year, with children’s mental health the key focus. The NHS Near Me platform is also being used by clinicians to connect with patients remotely, reaching 22,000 contacts a week. Building such services with children and young people themselves, with a “what works” agenda, is key. I was extremely honoured to meet local Members of the Scottish Youth Parliament recently to discuss their leadership on mental health. I was so impressed by what Mitchell Frame, Bethany Ivison, Jack Donaghy and Lennon Boyle had to say, and by their awareness of mental health as a priority for their generation.
Importantly, throughout the pandemic the Scottish Government have developed their mental health recovery plan in conjunction with our local authorities, bringing support directly into our communities. Funding has enabled local authorities at grassroots level to provide a tailored local response for five to 24-year-olds. More than 200 new community mental health and wellbeing services for children and young people have been established and a youth advisory group set up to ensure that young people involved are at the core of self-harm prevention policies.
During the pandemic, the Minister with responsibility for mental health also wrote to all health boards to emphasise that mental health remains a clinical priority. Services must continue. The recovery plan has committed to providing 320 additional staff in Scotland in child and adolescent mental health services. CAMHS should be a step-up service where required, dependent on increased clinical need. It can never be a one-stop shop. A stepped-up model is needed. Online treatments must be available to all, with in-school counselling available across our schools and mental health support normalised across our local authorities and communities for families, as has been described. CAMHS need to be for clinically intensive presentations or they will remain overwhelmed.
It would also be helpful for best practice across the UK—perhaps the Minister will consider this—if diagnostic hubs were developed locally for young people who require assessment for specific issues such as autistic spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or learning disability, with input from multidisciplinary teams led by educational psychologists. Children should never have to be on lengthy waiting lists for CAMHS for assessment, because their diagnosis is key to getting other supports involved in their lives.
To conclude, I want briefly to mention the Diana Award and the all-party parliamentary group on mentoring, which I have been chairing. I commend all the MPs in this House from across parties who have contributed to our programme over the past two years. Over 200 MPs during this time have mentored a young person in their community. These are the life-changing opportunities appreciated by young people and their families, so Members should please get in touch with me if they want to prioritise mentoring a young person in conjunction with the Diana Award this year. This successful cross-party programme is promoting opportunity. It increases self-worth and wellbeing, and I thank everyone who has contributed. Together, we can make a difference across the House in policy and in our actions on children’s mental health. I thank all the teachers, volunteers and professionals working in the field. Mental health is key. Let us make a difference together in all our communities.