Can the Prime Minister’s ‘shared society’ really tackle inadequacies in young people’s mental health care?

Published: 13 Jan 2017

As a junior doctor in child and adolescent psychiatry, I was very pleased to hear Theresa May recognise the need to improve the lives for the one in ten children in Britain suffering from a diagnosable mental health condition.

She spoke of a ‘shared society’ approach to tackling this with a focus on fighting stigma and by widening access to support not just from hospitals but also classrooms with ‘mental health first aid’ training for teachers and ‘crisis cafes’ in the wider community. There was also welcome acknowledgement of the need for greater emphasis on prevention, as 75% of adult mental health conditions are known to start before the age of 18. This also ties in with figures from NHS Digital that the number of young people with psychiatric problems attending A&E in crisis has doubled over the last four years, blamed by experts on a lack of early support.

The government’s commitment to parity of esteem between physical and mental healthcare was also highlighted by the PM in her Huffington Post Blog – ‘…so that whatever your illness, physical or mental, you are treated the same – very often the treatment for those with mental illnesses is inadequate’.

The project I am leading at HQIP connects in with this pledge for greater parity of esteem across the National Clinical Audit and Patient Outcome Programme (NCAPOP). I have been encouraged by the enthusiasm that the programme providers have shown in this area, notably the Child Health Clinical Outcome Review Programme that has chosen to focus on mental health problems in young people this year.

However, with the media reporting widely on what the Red Cross described as a ‘humanitarian crisis’in the NHS, I worry that with a cash-strapped healthcare system, there are more immediately urgent metaphorical fires to be put out first before thoroughly addressing young people’s mental health. I also wonder how teachers will react to additional expectations on them in another overstretched public sector, and whether this funding would be better placed in established but struggling child and adolescent mental health services, rather than start another new initiative.

Nevertheless, I remain cautiously optimistic and sincerely hope that the Prime Minister’s well wishes and wise words do indeed translate into noticeable benefits seen by individual children, adolescents and their families. I also look forward to returning to my clinical role later this year to find out if changes for the better can be felt on the frontline and in areas that matter most to patients such as prompt waiting times for assessment, access to evidence-based psychological treatments, and inpatient beds close to home.