Mental health services have seen a dramatic increase in young people being referred for support. The pandemic has amplified what was already a growing issue and support services are struggling to cope. The waiting list for an initial appointment is 6 months to 2 years, with 1 in 4 young people being turned away with no support.
As part of his new role as Youth Mental Health Ambassador, Dr Alex George has visited young people and projects across the UK to better understand the scale of the problem.
As part of Children in Need, Dr Alex produced an emotive video about the mental health crisis and the positive impact of support services. He speaks openly with young people and parents about their experiences. The video includes discussions of self-harming, eating disorders and suicide, including the death of Dr Alex’s 19-year-old brother during the pandemic.
In one of the conversations, a young girl says “We are known as the snowflake generation, but people don’t understand that we are exposed 24/7; everyone has an opinion on us.” Another says “It is hard to be yourself; there are so many expectations”.
Early Intervention to Prevent a Mental Health Crisis
In 2020, the Centre for Mental Health predicted that 1.5million young people would need to access mental health support services as a result of the pandemic. The Government has pledged £79 million to schools and £40 million to the NHS to address this issue, but how is the money best spent?
One message resonates. It is mentioned in Dr Alex’s video and is raised in this Intergenerational Foundation article; early intervention is essential. Many young people do not understand their feelings and don’t recognise them as a mental health issue. They feel guilt and shame about their thoughts, believing that they are alone. They suffer in silence until the situation becomes a physical health issue.
Children referred to hospitals with eating disorders in 2020 were 50% higher than in 2019 and 10 hospital admissions a week relate to young people self-harming. These are two of the many destructive symptoms of young people not feeling listened to, not being able to cope and trying desperately to take control of their lives.
With more open discussions in schools and youth organisations, along with structured peer support systems, young people can better recognise their feelings and know who they can talk to. As one mother says in the video, therapeutic early intervention for younger children can prevent issues escalating and reaching crisis points.
What Age Should Mental Health Awareness be Introduced?
In the last year, hospitals and services are reporting an escalation in pre-teens who are impacted by poor mental health. This indicates the value of discussions around feelings and emotions at primary level. These can be built on through every stage of education; secondary, college and university.
My particular passion is to gain insight into the positive impact of providing mental health awareness training, access to support services as an integral part of university life. The purpose of education is to equip young people with the skills and knowledge to enter the world of work. This should include developing the mindset and strategies to cope with the pressures of working life.
In September, I enrolled on a Doctorate and will use this opportunity to research and better understand mental health provision in higher education. Can good intervention support students through their studies and make them more resilient employees in the future?
Informing Parents of Risk of Harm
One of the most recent developments in my field is the launch of new guidelines by the Office of Students. These guidelines for universities encourage policies around communicating with families if they fear a student may be at risk of self-harm or suicide. This is based on the fact that 174 university students in England and Wales died from suicide in 2019.
The data on deaths in 2020, when students were forced to isolate and attend remote lectures during the pandemic, is yet to be released. Whatever the numbers, any preventable death is too many. The question is, as campus life resumes through this academic year, will specialist support offered through lockdown continue? I intend that my research, along with others in this field, will ensure it does.