Written by Professor Sarah Niblock, Chief Executive, UKCP
We want to live in a country where no child should go to bed hungry, hopeless or frightened.
That was the rallying call from the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) to politicians last night for a mentally healthier post-Brexit Britain.
Politicians accepted that there has never been a better time for mental health, with Andrew Selous MP citing now as a ‘golden moment’ for mental health policymaking.
Child and adolescent mental health must shift away from the medical model for the majority who do not require prescriptions, urged UKCP Chair Martin Pollecoff.
Parents, schools, councils and communities urgently need extra support to deliver the best possible social environment for children and young people to thrive.
UKCP were addressing MPs and delegates at a fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester.
Mr Pollecoff said: ‘I am a blue collar therapist, I am not an academic, and I work every day with people who have mental health problems. Please treat this as a view from the frontline.
‘Let me ask you something: if a child is bullied at school and becomes nervous and withdrawn – is that child mentally ill? Or are they just naturally responding to their hostile environment?
‘If a little girl is told at home that she is useless and she will never amount to anything – and she is despondent, depressed and is failing – is she mentally ill?
‘If a little boy lives with his depressed mother in a tiny flat and is neglected, then when he gets to school he fools around to get attention – is he mentally ill?
‘My answer is no, not necessarily their problems come from their environment. They are psychosocial, they don’t come from any organic disease.’
UKCP Vice Chair Patricia Hunt opened the debate by declaring psychotherapists as the new and vital social innovators working from the grassroots, citing the recent report by UN Special Rapporteur Dainius Pūras calling on Governments to shift from a biomedical model in favour of cultivating ‘rights-based societies’.
Ben Howlett, Public Policy Director and former MP for Bath, spoke candidly of his own mental health having lost a close friend to suicide. It spurred him to set up the first mental wellbeing surgery alongside his constituency surgery.
He spoke frankly about encounters with his constituents: ‘Mental health is a major issue for Government. I am aware there are a large number of patients in the UK who are failing to get the help they need. They are sent to CBT but that is clearly not the only answer.
‘In schools I heard that children were having to relive terrible accounts of abuse after being diagnosed with a mental health problem. Clearly they should not be going through this.
‘The Mental Health Act in its time was good but knowledge has developed at such a rate that legislation must keep in touch with the times. We need a fit for use Act that really delivers for the most vulnerable in society.’
He went on to emphasise that MPs should take more of a responsibility when it comes to health in their communities. “The job of MPs is to educate and inform as well as legislate. All MPs must take away that they can have a powerful voice in schools and communities to tackle things like loneliness, a hidden issue not talked about enough.
Andrew Selous MP, who sits on the Commons Health Select Committee, said this is a ‘golden moment’ with very serious political commitment to mental wellbeing ‘right at the top of Government’.
He said: ‘My longstanding interest is in strengthening family life and avert family background. This is key to good mental health. The link to mental health is acute – family issues are the number one presenting issue for why children seek help. We know there’s evidence that children are more influenced by the relationship between their parents than the relationship they have with them directly.
‘I wouldn’t for a moment say family issues are the only cause of mental health problems – social media, exam stress, the epidemic of loneliness are all important – but we cannot address this issue seriously and fully if we ignore the cause of family breakdown. The impact goes on into teenage years, adulthood and beyond.
‘We must shift the focus to early childhood experience and how we can make the home situation better for everyone.
‘Many politicians shy away – we’re more comfortable with bypasses and military equipment, but it has a massive impact on poverty and social justice. My plea to Government is to take seriously supporting couple relationships and reducing inter-parental conflict.’
Andy Bell, Deputy Chief Executive of the Centre for Mental Health, cited a litany of factors in childhood and adolescence that impact adversely on mental wellbeing:
‘We only meet a quarter of needs. But we need to focus on what works. What can help are parenting programmes, effective school-based counselling, but we have seen especially good results with youth work, such as arts-based projects, which local authorities are struggling to maintain.
‘We must get the money out to local services – not just health but to innovative projects across the community.’
Mr Pollecoff accepted that there are children and young people, such as those on the autistic spectrum or with learning difficulties, for whom the NHS provides excellent support.
But he added: ‘Most mental illnesses are not organic – there is no physical problem.
‘Many children live in toxic environments. So let’s not blame that child. She or he needs support, not the stigmatising diagnosis of disease.
‘The costs have little to do with treatment – that’s cheaper compared to the alternative. Even years of psychotherapy are cheap. The real costs have to do with housing, a lifetime of benefits, social services, police time and physical poor health for mental illness is linked with alcoholism, obesity and smoking. Let’s stop these problems before they even start.’