It is normal for children and young people to experience various types of emotional distress as they develop and mature. For example, it is not uncommon for children to experience anxiety about school, or for young people to experience short periods of depression that are transient in nature. However, when symptoms persist professional assistance is often required, and as a parent you hope that such help will be easily accessible for your child should they need it.
As both a parent and politician, I was therefore extremely concerned last year when a report published by the Children, Young People and Education Committee, of which I am a member, found that support for the emotional and mental health of young people in Wales has been “too limited for too long”.
The committee publication called for urgent action to embed support for children in schools to build resilience and equip the education workforce to spot problems and help to tackle them - The Welsh Government however decided not to adopt many of the reports key recommendations.
Now, new figures have revealed that the number of under 18s presenting at A&E in Welsh hospitals with mental health concerns has increased by 44% in four years. 1,141 minors attended Accident & Emergency departments in 2017/18 compared to 790 in 2013/14, with the figure rising year-on-year in the intervening years. This is despite the Welsh Government’s programme “Together for Mental Health” which has had a significant focus on early intervention and identification of issues.
Here in North Wales, troubled Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board – which has been in Special Measures and thus under direct Welsh Government control for over three and a half years – recorded the most admissions, at 329.
This is a region that has 1,000 children and young people waiting for a year or longer for a mental health assessment and treatment - more than all of the other health boards in Wales combined.
With the admissions criteria for CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) changing, it is clear that children and young people are not getting the support they need, and tragically are presenting at A&E in a bid to get emergency treatment.
Support for children with mental health and wellbeing problems in Wales is wholly inadequate and we need urgent action to turn things around.
Waiting lists for access to assessments and therapies are leaving children and their families in limbo for months or even years while their health often deteriorates – this is totally unacceptable.
With an increasing number of head teachers reporting that mental health is a growing problem in our schools, we need a radical plan.
There has been good practice on building mental health resilience in some schools, including Ysgol Pen y Bryn in Colwyn Bay, but much more needs to be done to embed support for children in all our schools and equip the education workforce to spot problems and help to tackle them.
However, we also need to address the unacceptable waiting times for children with more serious mental health problems who need access to a psychologist.
For years the emphasis has been on physical health, but these latest figures reinforce the crucial need for the Welsh Government to pay more attention to the mental health and well-being of our young people and I will continue holding them to account until they do.