Words are not enough. It’s time young people’s mental health is taken seriously

Eelliot thumbnaillliot Clissold

Comment Editor

It shouldn’t take a high court judge to find a hospital bed for a suicidal girl. We need more than false promises and empty platitudes if we are to help our society’s most vulnerable.


Whilst shadowing an on-call psychiatry trainee recently, I managed to sneak in a hurried conversation whilst running between wards. It started with the inevitable question of “What do you want to do with your career?”.

“I would love to work in child and adolescent mental health, but there’s no money there for us to help anyone.”, she told me.

When one of the UK’s leading judges, Sir James Munby, was forced to publicly speak out last week in order to find a hospital bed for a suicidal 17 year old girl, known to the public as ‘girl X’, it reminded me of this conversation.

His actions may well have saved her life, given that professionals believed she would have killed herself “within days” had she been discharged. Munby described the case as “a disgrace to civilisation, compassion and human decency” and said that society would have “blood on its hands” had she not been given a bed. Despite the best efforts of frontline staff, the reality is that tens of thousands of vulnerable young people just like ‘girl X’ are suffering because mental health services are so overwhelmed and understaffed.

Usually, when there’s public outrage over an issue, the government of the day scours the statistics to find something they can twist to make it seem all is well, before offering promises that they will throw money at it and fix it. Unfortunately, for the mental health of the UK’s youth, this government has been unable to find anything to paint a prettier picture of the grim reality we are faced with. Instead, we are stuck with the empty promises that so often fail to materialise.

These include aiming to spend ‘record levels’ on mental health, and recruiting an extra 21,000 mental health staff by 2021. Sadly, these ‘record levels’ have so far amounted to cuts on the frontline and, given that nurses are leaving in droves, these 21,000 new staff might be needed just to keep services afloat. As usual, the ambitions don’t match the reality.

Unfortunately, it seems child and adolescent mental health (CAMHS) isn’t glamorous enough to get the level of funding it demands. Its results, whilst enormous, would be seen in the generations to come, not before the next election. While politicians continue to deny the problem, use ‘mental health’ as a buzzword and try to cover the problem up, real people will continue to suffer.

Given that, in some areas, budget cuts mean the threshold for a child being seen by a specialist is that they have already attempted suicide, GPs will continue to refer knowing that they’re going to get the “no” letter back. Young people in hospital will continue to be told that they can’t go home because there is no community support for them, even though there are no CAMHS beds left in the entire country, and teenagers having daily panic attacks will still be told they must fend for themselves for 10 months while they wait for help.

Of course, funding isn’t the only issue. We are still fighting against a longstanding taboo on mental illness. If there is anything this government has done, it is to have made some small progress on achieving its parity of esteem with physical health in this social sense.

However, in all of today’s mental health crisis, I refuse to place the blame anywhere near the feet of the NHS’s frontline staff who work so hard every day, despite having their hands tied even tighter each year. Neither will I blame the charities who desperately try to pick up the slack.

Life for Britain’s young people is tougher than ever. Austerity has led to a generation of children growing up in poverty, increasing social and academic pressures are leading to an anxiety epidemic in schools, and an alienated youth left a hopeless by a bleak future has seen suicide become one of the leading cause of death in under 25s. Support for their mental health is needed now more than ever.

The case of ‘girl X’ has lay bare the human cost of a chronic underinvestment into CAMHS. It is a watershed moment. It In having a judge whose compassion led him to speak out, ‘girl X’ was one of the lucky ones. What about the tens of thousands of others like her? Until we start making the well-being of our youth a priority, they will continue to suffer the consequences.

In the UK, the Samaritans confidential service can be contacted on 116 123. For further help and support, you can contact www.youngminds.org.uk.



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