Children abandoned by mental-health care

One in 10 has a mental illness; that's 1.3 million nationwide
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The Independent Online

Simon Brooks, aged 15, from South Wales died from an overdose in April, a victim of bullying at school, according to his mother. Jessica Eales was found hanged in the New Forest the day after her 17th birthday last July. Mary Stroman, 16, was killed after being hit by a train in Wiltshire last January. Each of these terrible deaths reminds us of the pressure we place on young people. Another sign of that pressure was revealed last Friday, by Health and Social Care Information Centre figures showing a dramatic rise in the number of 10- to 14-year-olds admitted to A&E with self-inflicted injuries – from cutting, burning or poisoning.

Among girls, the number of cases of self-harm has almost doubled in the past five years to 5,955. Among boys it has risen 45 per cent to 659. One in 10 children under 18 has a diagnosable mental illness – mainly anxiety, depression or conduct disorder; that's 1.3 million nationwide.

Campaigners blame bullying, school stress and increased sexual demands. Whatever the cause, the real scandal is the lack of help offered to distressed and disturbed young people. As few as one in four receives help, despite a law that mandates equal treatment for mental and physical illness. Proven treatments are available, yet children cannot access them.

Schools occupy a key role in protecting the mental health of children, but too often schools do not see the creation of happy adults as their prime objective. Yet if children are happy they do better academically. A survey of 200 programmes aimed at enhancing the social and emotional skills of pupils found they also increased their academic scores by 10 per cent.

A report to be presented at the World Innovation Summit for Health (Wish) in Doha in February will call for schools to make the wellbeing of their pupils a key objective. It will say every school should have a wellbeing code of behaviour and should measure the wellbeing of their children to identify those with difficulties. In addition, the Wish report will call for explicit teaching of life skills.

When children in distress are identified, swift help is vital. There has been a revolution in treatment over the past 30 years and recovery rates from anxiety and depression are more than 50 per cent. But despite the recent expansion in therapists we need many more, including at least one centre of excellence for each region.

People will object that this is costly. But the cost of doing nothing is blighted lives and rising rates of crime, drug-taking and suicide. Children given the right start are far more likely to grow into secure, grounded adults. We owe it to future generations to act now.

Professor Lord Darzi is a surgeon, director of the Institute of Global Health Innovation at Imperial College London, and executive chair of Wish. He was a Labour health minister from 2007-9