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New EPI report findings on government policies relating to young people’s mental health not being implemented

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New EPI report finds that just a third of government policies relating to children and young people’s mental health have been fully implemented

A new report by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) assesses the progress that has been made against government targets to improve children and young people’s mental health services since 2015.

Whilst some progress has been made in improving service provision, EPI finds that this has been outpaced by rising demand for services, with concerning levels of variation in the services available across England and a need for better data and greater transparency regarding service availability, quality and outcomes.

Informed by these findings and advice from advisory groups, EPI makes a range of policy recommendations, providing a blueprint for a future government’s strategy to improve children and young people’s mental health services.

Alongside the report, EPI has also launched an online ‘policy tracker’, which can be found here.

The report finds that:

  • Out of 135 government policies relating to children and young people’s mental health, just 36 per cent had been fully implemented. Some action had been taken for 58 per cent and for 6 per cent, it was unclear whether any progress had been made. Most policy plans that have been implemented are related to improving processes rather than the experiences and outcomes of young people with mental health needs.
  • Mental health provision for young people continues to vary considerably across the country, according to new data collected. This includes support following a mental health crisis and whilst on a waiting list for clinical treatment; the ages at which children and young people’s mental health services are accessible; and the range of evidence-based therapeutic treatments on offer.
  • Whilst positive changes to provision for young people have been made, this progress has been outpaced by rising need. With a significant increase in the number of children and young people accessing services since the pandemic, government targets are now outdated and based on historical data.
  • There is still too little focus on prevention and early intervention, with the government adopting a largely reactive approach based on improving service provision for the most acute cases. 

Policy Recommendations:

  • The government should design a policy programme which reflects the evidence on drivers of, lifelong mental health issues and the importance of intervention in childhood and adolescence.
  • The government should update their mental health workforce strategy and implementation plan, with a ten-year mental health workforce recruitment and retention strategy including clear plans for funding, delivery, and accountability. To support this, DHSC should explore introducing a statutory CYPMH workforce census. 
  • NHS England and the Department for Health & Social Care must continue to focus on increasing access to – and eliminating barriers to accessing – mental health services for children and young people.
  • NHS England and the Department of Health and Social Care must work to improve mental health data and transparency, so that services can be more effectively planned and commissioned.
  • The government should gather data on early intervention and third sector services including availability of these services in local areas, access, and spending.
  • Future government policy plans should have greater clarity and internal consistency, accompanying implementation strategies, and accountability mechanisms. Policy commitments should be accompanied by implementation and measurement strategies, clearly laying out how and when they will be met.
  • All secondary schools should have access to a mental health support worker, with the skills and training to deliver evidence-based, high-quality interventions.
  • The Department for Education should aim to ensure all teachers have the knowledge and skills to recognise and respond to mental health needs and age-appropriate programmes to help pupils and teachers discuss mental health should be developed and expanded.
  • The government should introduce a strategy to reduce child poverty and expand access to high quality early support services for families in all areas.

Whitney Crenna-Jennings, Associate Director for Mental Health, Wellbeing and Inclusion at the Education Policy Institute, said:

“Whilst there has been some progress in improving mental health services for children and young people has been made, young people continue to experience long waiting times for treatment, with the availability of provision varying considerably across the country. It must also be noted that these improvements have been made from a low starting point and in the context of significantly increased demand for services, especially in the wake of the pandemic and
the rising prevalence of mental health conditions among children and young people.

“These findings suggest that the government has failed to keep up with the scale and seriousness of the mental health crisis impacting children and young people.

“The government must bring forward a credible plan to deliver better mental health services including an emphasis on the importance of early intervention, a ten-year workforce strategy and a renewed focus on eliminating the barriers to accessing mental health services that children and young people continue to face.

“Given the strong causal links between socio-economic factors and poor mental health, much more must also be done to tackle child poverty and provide all families with access to high-quality early support services.”

Sector Response:

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said:

“Children and young people’s mental health is one of the top concerns we hear from our members and from school professionals. They are still seeing the effects of the pandemic, and in particular of the current cost-of-living crisis, that is having a huge impact on children and young people’s wellbeing. Issues like attendance and school refusal have been in the news a lot recently, and mental health and anxiety is one of the biggest underlying causes of this.

“Unfortunately, as this report shows, government intervention into children and young people’s mental health has not been anywhere near sufficient, or gone far enough to make a difference. Nor have they done anything to try to alleviate the impact of poverty on children and families.

“School leaders and their staff work tirelessly to identify mental health needs and support children’s well-being, but they are not mental health specialists and they need to be able to draw on the timely expertise and support of specialist services – something that simply isn’t available to many right now.

“It is unfair on staff and pupils for schools to be left to struggle to paper over the cracks left by an unacceptable postcode lottery in early support and mental health treatment in which many children face long waits for treatment or are told their problems are not bad enough to warrant help.”

Liberal Democrat Education spokesperson Munira Wilson MP said:

“This Conservative Government has failed time and time again to tackle the mental health crisis facing children and young people in England. One in five children and young people in England have a probable mental health disorder and they are not getting the help they need and deserve. 

“Those with diagnosed mental health conditions aren’t getting the support they need, and thousands more are waiting far too long to even receive a diagnosis.

“We need fully implemented, meaningful measures to help young people navigate through mental health conditions. Gillian Keegan must ensure this happens.

“I will be introducing a Bill in the new year to help tackle this issue requiring every school to have access to a qualified mental health professional funded by the Government”. 

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