This blog was written by guest writer Dr. Viki Veale, Senior lecturer in early years and primary education at St Mary’s University.
I worked with children and their families for over twenty years. I now work with people training to become teachers. Throughout my career, I have seen how failures in the systems designed to support families, children and young people are contributing to the mental health crisis in England.
The impact of poverty on parental mental health is well documented. Early intervention is essential, without it, the level of support required by both the family and the individual child are likely to increase exponentially. But data released this year shows that almost 1 in 3 children are now living in poverty and longitudinal research has documented how rising levels of material deprivation in England have increased the number of children entering the care system.
A growing body of research has explored the impact of growing up in care and recent cases have highlighted the many failings of the care system in England. While the patterns for long term health, educational and academic outcomes are set in early life, they are not set in stone. Early intervention by a well trained workforce has been shown to have a positive impact which has long term benefits in terms of health, wellbeing educational and economic outcomes.
But it is not just the care system that is failing, our health service is on its knees, our schools are crumbling and we are struggling to recruit frontline workers into a system which compounds inequality.
Excessive workload, low morale and high levels of work related stress have been cited as key factors impacting social workers in England, contributing to a shortfall within the sector that is putting children’s lives at risk. The NHS workforce review published in June documents a staffing shortfall of 112, 000 key workers. Among the issues which lead to these shortfalls is a failure to invest in long term training and development. These failures mean that up to 60% of children referred to GP’s for support with their mental health and wellbeing are not getting the support they need and are entered into a postcode lottery where it can take between 10 days and three years for a first appointment. There is even less support when young people reach the age of 18 and transfer to adult services. As Young Minds point out, the system is in total shutdown and since the scrapping of the 10 year mental health plan, there is no clear strategy to rescue it.
Shortfalls in the availability of support for children and families places excessive pressure on educators too. As pointed out to the House of Commons on the 6th of September, over 40,000 teachers left the profession last year. While the government attempts to blame the ongoing retention crisis on failures in how teachers are prepared for professional practice and supported in the early stages of their careers, Ian Hartwright, head of policy at the National Association of Head Teachers, was quoted in a recent article in a national newspaper as saying: “More than a decade of real-terms cuts to pay, accompanied by crushing workload and the impact of high stakes inspection and accountability measures that drive ill-health, mean that teachers and leaders continue to walk away from an education system where funding is still below 2010 levels in real terms.”
People are compelled to work with children and their families by a desire to help others. But they are thwarted in their efforts to do so by policies which have promoted scarcity across services designed to support children and their families and abusive education policies which compound children’s sense of inadequacy by labelling them failures right from the start of their educational journeys. Just as we are told in the event of an emergency on an aircraft to fasten our own air masks before helping others, those who work in frontline services designed to support children and their families urgently need support. We are in a state of emergency, our systems are failing.
Children are not born with equal opportunities to survive and thrive, but they are not born broken; they are broken by the failures within the systems that have been designed to support them and the systemic failure of successive governments to develop a long term plan to address this.
Along with other mental health organisations, MQ are calling for all political parties to adopt the recommendations in A Mentally Healthier Nation and focus on prevention, equality and support through a commitment to long term investment to the systems designed to support children and their families.
This blog is a call to frontline workers and to all those concerned with the mental health and wellbeing of our nation; please hold your parliamentary candidate to account for the failures in our systems and urge them to build a mentally healthier nation now.