Five ways Britain wrecks young people’s mental health – and how to stop it

Young people silhouetted across the sky

Astudy from the Varkey Foundation has revealed that young people in the UK suffer from some of the “lowest levels of mental wellbeing in the world” – second only to Japan.

This won’t be a shock to anyone familiar with statistics on child and adolescent mental health in Britain. Some 75% of mental illnesses begin before the age of 18, and the charity MQ estimates that on average, there are three children in every classroom with a diagnosable mental illness. This, combined with a continuing crisis in mental healthcare in Britain, means young people are not getting the help they need or deserve. But how exactly are young people being failed?

Slashing NHS budgets

Cuts to the NHS aren’t new – the Conservative government has been slowly dismantling the health service since 2010. And it shows no sign of slowing – a 2016 investigation by the Guardian and 38 Degrees revealed that trusts around England were “drawing up plans for hospital closures and cutbacks” in an attempt to avoid a £20bn shortfall by 2020.

Mental healthcare has suffered disproportionately: unmanageably long waiting lists for secondary care, to take one example. Referrals to therapy or specialist units are hampered by a lack of available staff or by ward closures – which means that diagnosis of more severe conditions are delayed even further.

This is particularly striking when you consider that most young people wait on average 10 years between the onset of illness and an eventual diagnosis – and means that many are slipping through the cracks with neither diagnosis nor adequate care.

Similarly, cuts to community care have meant that more children than ever – 20,000 in 2015 alone – have been seeking emergency mental healthcare in A&E, in wards that are often staffed by stressed, overstretched teams who have no specialist psychiatric support to help them cope.

Treating children miles away from home

Cuts have led to the closure of many child and adolescent mental health wards – which, combined with a severe shortage of beds, has led to children being admitted to adult psychiatric wards and being sent hundreds of miles away in order to receive outpatient care.

A 2014 investigation from Community Care and BBC News found that 350 under-18s were admitted to adult wards in the first nine months of 2013 – a 36% increase from the previous 12 months; 10 out of 18 NHS trusts surveyed had sent children to units more than 150 miles away from their home in 2013-14, making compassionate and consistent care for young people impossible.

Cuts to school budgets

One of the key themes of Theresa May’s speech on mental health was a focus on the prevention of these problems, particularly in young people. Research backs this up – a recent study published in Lancet Psychiatry suggested that early intervention was a significant factor in presentation of depressive symptoms in young people.

What May’s speech didn’t mention, however, was how exactly this would be implemented, beyond a mention of “mental health first aid training”. Unsurprisingly, May also failed to mention the grimly inevitable cuts to school budgets that will make this strategy near to impossible anyway.

Earlier this week, a TES investigation found that a third of secondary schools are planning to “cut back” the mental health support offered to pupils because of what one headteacher described as “budgets at breaking point”. Early intervention is vital, but if teachers are untrained in mental health – because the resources aren’t there – then it simply isn’t going to happen.

Lack of adequate research

Mental health research is, in general, an underfunded area. In 2014, the UK Clinical Research Collaboration found that mental health was only allocated £112m a year – which sounds like a lot, until you consider the nearly 15 million people in the country affected by mental illness. In context, this means a research budget of just £8 per person affected by mental illness – a startlingly low sum, especially when compared to less common conditions like cancer (£178 per person) or dementia (£110 per person).

Less than 30% of this research is focused on young people – meaning we haven’t even started to understand how to tackle mental illness in young people.

Failing to take adolescent mental health seriously

Young people are now pretty used to being the punchline of unfunny jokes made by Telegraph readers and the over-45s. Millennials, eh? We’re stupid! We’re narcissistic! We look at our phones all the time! We’re mollycoddled snowflakes! We expect to be given the moon on a stick! These might be hilarious ideas to people without crushing student debts and who have the means to own property – sure, but it’s all fairly tiring for young people.

It might sound facile – typical millennials, complaining about nothing – but it is an undeniable fact that young people are not being taken seriously and that this, in some cases, is severely impacting on their mental health. While researching my book, I spoke to young people up and down the country who told me they felt consistently let down by parents, teachers and healthcare professionals who wrote off their symptoms or failed to take action to prevent distress.

There was an understandable sense of reticence, caution and disappointment about the behaviour of supposed adults. This conversation has continued to follow me – only last week, a teenager messaged me on Twitter to eloquently and despairingly talk about how they and their friends had been consistently and systematically let down by their school.

It’s a familiar story to me – even as a confident young adult with a medical history full of psychiatric wards and prescriptions for antipsychotics, I’m often questioned by GPs and support workers on the veracity of my own experiences. The difference is that I’m used to overcoming barriers to care – younger people are not, and often fall at these completely unnecessary hurdles.

This isn’t just a social problem, either – failure to acknowledge symptoms is a structural problem too. In 2015, the NSPCC suggested that nearly 40,000 young people were unable to meet the “too strict” criteria for receiving help – so even if teenagers pluck up the courage to ask for help, they still aren’t getting any.

Young people are telling us that they’re unhappy. They are asking for help. What they want is simple too. For a start, don’t send them hundreds of miles away from home for treatment. And they don’t want GPs to tell them that their clinical depression is just “being a teenager”. They certainly don’t want to sit down with their neighbour and have a cup of tea, as Theresa May ridiculously suggested on Time to Talk – their focus, on the whole, is not on stigma at all.

What young people really want is actual, actionable, well-funded support. They want to be taken seriously; they want to receive the help that they need in a timely, compassionate, efficient and effective manner. They’re asking for it already – when are we going to start listening?

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