Guest blog by Lynne Neagle AM. This article first appeared in the Western Mail.
In April it will be a year since the National Assembly’s Children, Young People and Education Committee published its Mind over Matter report, which called for a step change in the support available to children experiencing emotional and mental health issues in Wales.
The findings were stark.
Half of all mental health problems begin by the age of fourteen.
Three quarters of all mental health problems set in by a young person’s mid-twenties.
One in ten of our young people will experience a mental health problem.
Based on these figures, and the wealth of expert evidence we received, we concluded that if we failed to put our young people at the very centre of our strategy, mental ill health would continue to snowball.
To stem the flow, we concluded that a step change is needed in how we approach emotional and mental health in Wales. We need to equip our children and young people with the skills, confidence and tools to be emotionally resilient. We need a strategy that sees us intervene much earlier, addressing the seeds of distress before they take root.
We were deeply disappointed with the Welsh Government’s initial response to our recommendations. As a Committee we took the unprecedented step of rejecting the response, and called on the Ministers to reconsider their position.
The Welsh Government reacted by setting up a Ministerial Task and Finish Group – chaired jointly by the Ministers for Health and Education – to reconsider the robust and comprehensive evidence we presented and the recommendations to which we gave considerable and serious thought.
I sit on that Group as an independent observer with full rights of participation. I intend to hold a mirror up to the Group’s work, and to seek progress that meets the Committee’s ambitions and expectations in this area.
More recently the Welsh Government announced an additional £7.1 million to specifically address the issues raised in our Mind over Matter report.
The additional funding is of course welcome and we look forward to seeing how exactly it will be invested. As we approach the first anniversary of the report’s publication, I believe the time has come to inject pace into putting the resource and support needed in place to support us all to implement and deliver this change.
I also believe we need to guard against the ever-present danger of seeking to re-invent the wheel. What is clear is that the current approach isn’t effective enough. So to recommit and reinforce the services already in place isn’t the answer. We need a new approach.
So it will come as no surprise in Children’s Mental Health week to reaffirm that the Committee doesn’t intend to stop here. If young people are to be placed at the heart of our overall strategy for mental health, we need to continue our drive to ensure that best practice is shared, change and innovation are delivered, and our focus is shifted from the reactive to the preventative.
On that basis, we have requested a new response to each of our recommendations from the Welsh Government by next month. We do not intend to take our foot off the pedal on this and we are committed to following up on the place our children and young people are given in future emotional and mental health strategies, approaches and investments with a close and forensic eye.
During the course of our inquiry last year we spoke to many children and young people about their experiences. Some of them were deeply upsetting. Some of them also demonstrated to us that, when the proper services are effective and in place, they can be of immense help to people struggling with their emotional or mental health. Thomas was one of the young people we spoke with.
As young people so often manage to do, he summed up our inquiry in one sentence.
“If I’d got these issues addressed a lot earlier, it wouldn’t have boiled over.”
We all have a responsibility – and an ability – to implement the changes that will enable young people like Thomas get the help they need earlier and avoid issues boiling over wherever possible. And those changes aren’t only for our children and young people, but for the adults they become, and the children they go on to have. It is incumbent on us to invest to save, to prevent rather than react, and to make the step change that is so urgently needed to build a population of emotionally resilient and mentally healthy people in Wales.
If we want sustainable services, a healthy population, and – most importantly of all – fewer individuals and families experiencing longer term challenges and hardships caused by mental ill health, young people must be at the heart of the strategy. Let’s remember Thomas’s words – if we get these issues addressed earlier, they need not always boil over.