A generation of school children are being denied the mental health support they desperately need, argues Rania Ramli.
Being a young person is not always easy. Whether it’s social pressure, exam stress or increasing uncertainty, we all face unique challenges. Having to navigate this confusing time whilst ill is even harder.
It is estimated that mental health problems affect one in 10 children and young people in the UK and 14-25 year olds make up the biggest proportion of the 1.6 million people dealing with an eating disorder. Whether it’s anorexia, bulimia or one of the many other types, eating disorders can have long term physical as well as psychological consequences. This is especially true with regards to anorexia, which has the highest mortality rate of any mental health illness.
But as with most things, spotting the signs and intervening early is the key to preventing and limiting some of these dangerous effects. That’s where schools come in.
70 per cent of children and young people who experience a mental health problem did not get appropriate intervention at a sufficiently early age. When it comes to anorexia this can mean the difference between making a full recovery and becoming part of the 23 per cent who suffer chronically.
Unfortunately, austerity means that schools have had to deal with a significant reduction in budgets and often it is pastoral care that is cut first. But I was lucky.
As an 11-year-old in September 2010, I started at my local comprehensive secondary school. Being in one of the most deprived boroughs in London, with 42.3 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals, it faced many challenges and it definitely wasn’t perfect. But the pastoral care was fantastic. It meant that when children and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) wasn’t working for me and my GP didn’t understand, I still had strong and unwavering support from school. But as I entered my mid-teens, having begun to move on and recover from my anorexia, I noticed that things were changing. The mental health provision at my school had shrunk and the next generation of 11-year-olds simply couldn’t get the same support.
This was, and still is, a problem. First, because it makes early intervention and continuous monitoring harder. For a majority of children and young people, teachers and school support staff are the professional adults they see most often. This makes them most likely to spot the signs of an eating disorder and creates an environment where many young people feel able to open up.
But the strain on pastoral care also has wider impacts on the NHS. CAMHS have suffered as only 50 per cent of local NHS bodies increased CAMHS funding by the full amount after the government pledged an extra £1.4 billion in 2015, with many choosing to use the extra money for other priorities. There are now areas like Norfolk and Suffolk, where over 60 per cent of referrals to specialist mental health services are refused or signposted elsewhere. This is before the waiting times and the need to move miles away from home for treatment are considered.
This is why, 10 years after I first developed anorexia and 8 years since I was told that I was so ill that I probably wouldn’t get any GCSEs, I will be spending my 20th birthday jumping out of a plane to raise money for Beat.
From running a helpline and support groups to providing training and raising awareness, the work that Beat does has become increasingly important. For me it was my school that I relied on and for others it may have been CAMHS. But for today’s young people, these are becoming less common and more difficult to access. The role of Beat and other charities is more important than ever and I feel lucky to be able to do my bit to help.
We need to fund our mental health services better. We need to see our schools, colleges and universities not as businesses but as nurturing environments where young people can grow and find support. And we need to properly invest in pastoral care.
But until then we all have a responsibility to support the charities filling some of these gaps. You can follow and sponsor my skydive here.
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues in this article, want more information, or want to speak to someone, you can visit the Mind’s website here, or call 0300 123 3393.
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