Mental Health Support Teams: Expansion welcomed but will it be too little, too late?

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The acceleration of the Mental Health Support Teams initiative has been welcomed – but it is still not enough as current plans will reach only a third of children by April 2023.

The Department of Health and Social Care last week said that £79m would be allocated to increase the number of planned Mental Health Support Teams working in schools.

The initiative was originally launched pre-pandemic and had already been criticised for its slow roll-out. It was first announced in the government’s December 2017 Green Paper on mental health, with plans to reach just a quarter or a fifth of the country by 2023/24.

Pilots began work in December 2018 with 59 teams having been set up by March last year. The new plan in light of the pandemic is to have around 400 teams in place by April 2023. However, this still only reaches a third of the school and college-age population.

The £79m is not new funding and comes from the £500m which was allocated to mental health as part of last November’s Spending Review.

Ministers estimate that these teams will be able to support around three million children by that date. Unsurprisingly, critics have pointed out that this will be too late for many young people.

The support teams work to ensure early intervention, such as enabling children to text a health professional and providing families with tips on how to spot mental health problems. Existing support teams have worked during the pandemic to help families, offering services such as telephone counselling.

The £79m is also to fund increased access for more young people to community mental health services as well as eating disorder services.

It comes as education secretary Gavin Williamson co-chaired the first meeting of the Mental Health Action Group, which is made up of education and health ministers and a range of experts – from charities such as Mind, Young Minds and the National Children’s Bureau and other organisations such as NHS England.

The DfE aid that the inaugural meeting on March 9 considered “the impact of the pandemic on the mental health and wellbeing of children, young people and education staff across England”.

The meeting touched upon those mental health issues of “greatest concern”, including increases in eating disorders and self-harm.

A DfE statement said: “The (group) agreed to take forward more action across a range of areas, including boosting the support available to help children and young people move between schools and year groups, and looking at how schools and colleges can target funding and recovery support to ensure that support reaches pupils who need it the most.”

Mr Williamson added: “Across society the sacrifices we have all had to make to battle the pandemic have had an impact on wellbeing and mental health, and this is especially true for young people who have had to sacrifice so much over the last year.”

Also on the group is Youth Mental Health Ambassador Dr Alex George. He said: “Young people in this country have shown incredible resilience during the pandemic, but we need to recognise that many have struggled with their mental health. Schools can play a vital role in a young person’s development and wellbeing and the extra investment for Mental Health Support Teams will make a huge difference.”

While the plan for 400 Mental Health Support Teams has been welcomed, Mark Russell, chief executive of The Children’s Society, said it was likely to be too little, too late for some.

He explained: “We welcome that the government is putting extra funds towards their mental health support. However, this is £79m of the £500m for mental health they announced. Children make up a fifth of our population and yet they aren’t even getting a fifth of the funding.

“Accelerating the introduction of Mental Health Support Teams is encouraging, but this still means that only about a third of children will receive support this way by April 2023. That still leaves millions of children without help which they need right now. Young people have been through so much in this last year and the government must explain what it is providing for the millions of children left behind.”

Mr Russell also warned that the government’s “sticking plaster” approach – providing help once children already have a problem – needed to change.

He added: “All of these announcements act like sticking plasters where all the help begins once children already have a problem. We want to protect childhoods and with children’s wellbeing seeing a worrying decline in the last decade even before the pandemic, this simply isn’t good enough.

“Children need a long-term joined up plan from the government aimed at improving the quality of our children’s lives so that we can monitor their wellbeing, stem the tide of rising mental ill-health and deliver a good childhood for every child.”

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