Paul Burstow writes … we must pay greater attention to the mental health needs of children

The recent report from the Chief Medical Officer, Prof Dame Sally Davies, on children’s health makes for sobering reading. Together with warnings about a lack of physical activity, and vitamin deficiencies, the need to pay greater attention to the mental health of our children and young people came out painfully clearly.

Current estimates put the annual costs of mental health problems among children aged 5-15 at around £2.35 billion across the UK. Yet only around one in four children are receiving help from specialist services within 3 years, and, as the report’s atlas of variation reveals, access may be most limited for the most deprived and needy groups.

While I was the Minister responsible for children’s mental health I recognised the vital importance of doing more for all those with mental health problems, and was proud to be able to start a new improving access to psychological therapies programme specifically designed for children and young people. My successor, Norman Lamb, has continued the momentum of the programme, recently extending the programme further, and I am pleased to say that the value of this work has been recognised in Dame Sally’s report. Worryingly though, she warns of cuts to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services as local authority budgets tighten. While the challenges of balancing budgets cannot be ignored, the crippling costs to local services of not dealing with children’s mental health problems can only ever make such cuts a tragic false economy. As the report’s title cautions – our children deserve better.

The report further warns that without better data collection, we do not know the real level of mental health need among children and young people and calls for a regular national survey to identify the prevalence of mental health problems. Without up to date information about need, linked to local services and delivery and benchmarked against international data, it will be impossible to measure our progress against the ambition of delivering parity of esteem. Critically, this is not just an issue for children’s mental health – vital though that is. As the evidence shows that 75% of mental health problems in adults begin before the age of 18 – with costs of mental ill health coming in at around £105bn every year – it is an issue the government must take seriously, and I very much hope that the recommendation will be taken forward with the urgency it deserves.

The opportunity must not be missed, for as Dame Sally’s report repeatedly reiterates, prevention pays. In physical health, in mental health, in working with schools and local services and supporting parents from the very earliest days to improve children’s mental and physical resilience and support them – and their families – to get the most from life. This is a mandate we must all sign up to, and one I passionately believe in. This summer, together with MPs from across the political spectrum, I committed to delivering the 1001 critical days manifesto which highlights the critical importance of prevention and support in the earliest days of children’s development. As yesterday’s timely report reminds us, it is a mission we must all continue to champion.


* Paul Burstow is Liberal Democrat candidate for Sutton and Cheam and was the MP until the dissolution of Parliament on 30th March.

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  • Helen Dudden 13th Nov '13 - 9:14am

    I tried to get your Party interested, in the problems of children caught up in international child access disputes.

    Anorexia is one issues, also self harming and low confidence.

    I feel it is important to understand that things do not simply restore themselves to a previous norm.

  • Um, something poverty,.. sounds expensive why not just take away their dining table. And gardens, who needs them?
    Everybody squeeze in! Slum housing is ok really, just think of the HB savings.

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