How can we support children and teenagers better?
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Jack (not his real name) had been out of school for a year. He was 15 and deeply troubled. He had also waited a year for his first appointment at CAMHS - the Children and Adolescent Mental Health Service. Jack’s mum was overcome by worry. She didn’t know what to do. She felt powerless, angry and totally frustrated.
This was one of the last cases I dealt with as Member of Parliament for North Norfolk. I vividly remember the first meeting in my advice surgery and then subsequently bringing the key professionals together with Jack and his mum at their home. I was struck by just how much the system fails young people like Jack. And the long term cost to the country of this neglect is vast. The result can often be poor educational attainment and worklessness. Many teenagers display behavioural problems linked to some sort of special educational need and this, too often, results in exclusion from school. The slippery slope leads some to prison by the time they are young adults. What a waste of human talent.
My purpose is not to have a go at the Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust. Instead it is to highlight just how dysfunctional the system in this country is for supporting children and teenagers. Across the country, long waiting times are commonplace. But that's not all. Often the threshold (how sick you have to be to even get on a waiting list) is very high. It’s almost as if we are saying to children and teenagers: ‘Go away, get sicker and then we will see you’.
Did you know that 75% of mental health problems have emerged by the age of 24? Most young people do not need specialist mental health treatment. But the risk is that, if we offer no support, things may deteriorate to the point where it becomes a crisis. Yet we fail to invest sufficiently in preventing mental ill health in those formative years. By contrast, in Australia, successive governments have invested in a nationwide youth service called Headspace, offering early help to teenagers and young adults, avoiding over-medicalising the problem. I have recently joined a global advisory council organised by the founders of Headspace. The idea is to build momentum for reform around the world.
Yet the origins of this approach can actually be found here in England. In our own county, we have one of the finest organisations focussed on offering free, easily accessible and age-appropriate support to young people from 11 to 25. MAP has centres in Norwich and Great Yarmouth. It is part of a network around the country of Youth Information, Advice and Counselling Services. But their coverage is not universal. It depends on local funding.
Elsewhere in our county, dedicated people have built support from the grassroots, often on a shoestring. In Downham Market, the Swan Youth Project supports children and teenagers from the age of 8 to 18. It provides open access youth groups, offering a safe space to young people. Teenagers can get access to learning and training opportunities, arts, sports and social groups. In my former constituency, the Holt Youth Project continues to provide amazing support to young people. And there are so many other wonderful organisations dotted across our county led by inspiring people supporting children and young people at risk of mental ill health. Others offer vital support to children and teenagers with a learning disability or who are autistic.
So how can we give a stronger voice to these community based organisations? How can we maximise effectiveness and how can we reach more children and young people across Norfolk?
The exciting news is that we have brought together nearly 40 organisations working with children and young people to form a Norfolk coalition, committed to collaborating, sharing information and accessing training opportunities for staff and volunteers. Members of the coalition will commit to meeting a quality standard. Those organisations offering open access youth support together with organisations which undertake specialist youth work to a range of groups will be eligible to apply for grants from our Norfolk Mental Health and Wellbeing Fund, which has now topped £200,000.00 in funds raised, thanks to the generosity of local people.
Our collective ambition is to give children, teenagers and young adults in Norfolk the best possible support. We want to be an exemplar for others to follow. We aim to work closely with the mental health trust and county council. Norfolk has had its fair share of bad headlines. Let’s build something for which we can all be proud.
For more information, see www.norfolkfoundation.com/giving-philanthropy/mental-health