Children's Mental Health in Crisis

Last night, when I spoke with other election candidates at Sadler's Wells' hustings, the first question asked for our views on the impact that austerity has had on our community, both practically and psychologically. The questioner focussed in particular on the ways the community has become more fragmented in recent years, and the knock-on effects this can have on our mental health and that of our children.

It was a pertinent question, as next month's election offers voters their first opportunity to give a verdict on the last five years of an austerity agenda. As the woman who asked the question understood, one thing which should have been clear to all the candidates seeking to represent Islington South and Finsbury was the simple fact that, whatever economic "recovery" there's been in the last five years, it hasn't worked for a very large number of the people that live here.

The word "fragmentation" is an accurate one in describing some of the changes I've seen over these years. Really there are two Islingtons. There's the Islington people think they know – the cappuccino bars and Georgian squares – and we certainly have those. But the other Islington – the one that people who make assumptions about us don't understand – is the borough with the sixth highest level of child poverty in the nation, where youth unemployment is more than twice the national average.

These figures serve as a reminder of a harsh truth about life under the Tories – all too often the burden in hard times falls most heavily on those least able to bear it. Youngsters growing up in Islington today can't take the same things for granted that earlier generations have. A university education has been pushed out of the reach of many as tuition fees have trebled, housing costs have become increasingly unaffordable for people who've grown up here, and a secure, rewarding, well-paid job is far from guaranteed even for the most talented and hard working people if they happen to come from less privileged backgrounds.

Even those too young to have experienced these anxieties directly are often the victims of the same circumstances. More and more parents today are struggling to make ends meet while working for low pay or on zero hour contracts, or worse if they can't work and their benefits have been capped at levels far too low to take account of the cost of living in London. Others – affected by cruel policies like the bedroom tax – are simply forced to move away while holding out hope of being able to return one day.

I've met many women in recent years who've been forced to move further and further away from central London as the cost of living has outpaced wage growth. Often they face long commutes every day to take their children to school here – they don't want to have to change schools as long as any hope remains that they can move back home.

For the children of these families, it's impossible to imagine that their parents' daily stresses and struggles won't have a deep psychological impact. Growing up in the midst of such insecurity sets children up for a whole range of mental health problems. The charity Place2Be, which offers counselling to children with mental health issues, and support for their parents, has warned that the need for its services is "acute and growing every single day".

This February, launching the UK's first ever Children's Mental Health Week, Place2Be pointed out that, today, one in three children in every classroom has a diagnosable mental health condition. Half of those who experience a mental health problem in their lifetime will first experience symptoms before the age of 14, and in recent years rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers have increased by 75%.

None of my fellow candidates from the major parties had anything approaching an answer to these problems. Particularly galling was the Lib Dem candidate's contention that his party's record on and support of improved mental health services was something his party could be proud of. The reality is that NHS spending for children's mental health has been cut by 6% since 2010 - £50 million worth of cuts – and the (Lib Dem) minister responsible for children's mental health services, Norman Lamb, last year described these services as "not fit for purpose".

Among the many reasons we need a Labour government if we want to seriously address the crisis in children's mental health is that our party has committed to tackling head on the scandalous neglect of these services under the Tories and Lib Dems. Across the NHS – for adults and children – a Labour government will enshrine in the NHS constitution a right for patients to access talking therapies in the same way they currently have access to other treatments like medication.

Recognising how illogical it is that, currently, children's mental health services are allocated just 6% of the mental health budget (despite the fact that three quarters of mental illnesses begin in childhood) we will steadily increase the proportion of the budget that goes to children's services. Not only is this crucial for the children who badly need our help now, it's also good sense in terms of financial management as early intervention helps save money further down the line by focussing on prevention.

Beyond that, we want to tackle some of the root causes of youngsters' anxieties today, giving them hope of a better future with decent pay and regular hours at work, affordable homes to live in, and guaranteed jobs or vocational training. We won't be able to change things overnight of course, but if we start now we can help not just today's children, but their children too.


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