I spent six years trying to recover from the bulimia I developed as a fifteen year old - with earlier intervention it all could have been avoided

Mental health among young people has never been of greater importance

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Mental health is one of the biggest problems facing young people in the UK today. But according to former Health Minister Paul Burstow, under Michael Gove student welfare just wasn’t seen as the Department of Education’s “core business” and instead, Gove quietly downgraded the importance of mental health in schools. 

In an article published by The Guardian, Burstow accuses the former Secretary of State for Education of a lack of interest in children’s health and wellbeing, of failing to equip schools and teachers to identify those in need, and even of disbanding a team of officials leading on mental health in education.  If the report is correct, then Gove is guilty of an attitude symptomatic of our approach towards mental health in this country. 

It is an attitude which ignores the fact that one in ten young people in the UK has a treatable mental illness, although only one in four receives treatment. Over the last year alone, the NHS has reported that the number of children aged 10-14 admitted to hospital in England for self-harm is at a five-year high, while eating disorder admissions for UK teenagers have nearly doubled over the last three

Sadly, it is this same attitude that is condemning an entire generation to a lifetime of misery, by ignoring the importance of early treatment.  When it comes to eating disorders in particular, the latter has been supported by a recent study at King’s College London.  Their recent trial, showed that cutting waiting times made patients far more likely to engage with the treatment, reduced the high dropout rate from such care and helped patients recover more quickly than normal. “If you have a child with cancer, you wouldn’t wait until they had reached stage four cancer before starting treatment” says Professor Ulrike Schmidt, “It’s no different with an eating disorder."

I spent six years trying to recover from the bulimia I developed as a fifteen year old. When I lost over two stone during my GCSEs and my body max index (BMI) dropped to a worrying 16 (a healthy BMI is between 18.5 to 24.9) it took over a year for my school to recognise that I had an eating disorder and a staggering 18 months for me to be referred to CAMHS, the Child and Adult Mental Health Services, only for me to be discharged a few months later when I turned 18 without referral to another service. At university my bulimia became so severe that I was forced to take a year out during which I finally received the treatment I desperately needed.  Even now, I still struggle to maintain a health approach to meals and exercise. 

If my school had intervened earlier, I might have avoided six very painful years of suffering and, if a separate study conducted by the Institute for Fiscal Studies is anything to go by, I’d also be likely to earn more and lead a more fulfilling life. The think-tank reports that people who experience mental illness in childhood will lose more than £300,000 each in income, on average, during their lifetime, costing the UK £550billion in lost earnings over the last 40 years. It says the people who struggle with psychological problems as children go on to work fewer hours, earn less money and, depressingly, that we’re even less likely to marry.

There is some good news. Nicky Morgan lead the first ever general debate on mental health in the House of Commons, and is trying to ensure that young people get the support that is right for them. Teachers are being encouraged to identify underlying mental health problems, PSHE classes are being extended to include mental health as well as physical and the economic and health benefits of early intervention (more often than not resulting in prevention) are finally being recognised. 

More cuts are looming and the pressures on young people continues to mount; mental health among young people has never been of greater importance. We need to give them the right start, and prioritising their mental wellbeing is just one step in the right direction.