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Children with mental health problems ‘need support not punishment’, MPs told

Children and young people suffering sexual and domestic abuse are facing gaps in support, the NSPCC said (Gareth Fuller/PA) (PA Archive)
Children and young people suffering sexual and domestic abuse are facing gaps in support, the NSPCC said (Gareth Fuller/PA) (PA Archive)

Mental health campaigners insisted young people with mental health problems should be treated with compassion and understanding after Conservative MPs suggested some may be “crying wolf.”

The number of young people with diagnosed mental health problems has risen from one in nine in 2017 to one in six in 2020, the Commons education committee heard.

A separate snapshot survey by mental health charity Mind found that seven in ten children had missed school as a result of a mental health problem.

But Nick Fletcher, Conservative MP for Don Valley, queried the “explosion” in the figures, saying: “This is probably not going to go down very well with a lot of people but do you think that some of these are not actually really mental health issues - they are just saying they are mental health issues because that’s the thing to say…If people are actually crying wolf with this it’s actually taking away money from the people that really do need it and are really struggling so how do we deal with that?”

Referring to the Mind research on children missing school, he said: “There were lots of times when I was at school and when I come here [to the Commons] that I don’t feel well enough, but I come in. It’s called building resilience into people. If you are continually given a way out… ‘oh I have a mental health issue’…we are going to have an issue where there’s no funding for the ones that really need it and no resilience in people going through their life.”

Vicki Nash from Mind told MPs the scale of mental health problems among young people is rising rapidly and children are missing school as a result.

Young people are languishing on waiting lists or waiting to get sicker so they can get access to help, she said.

She added: “There is clearly an increase in diagnosed mental health problems which are clinically founded. There is also an increase in young people experiencing symptoms that don’t go on to become a diagnosed mental health problem.”

Ellie Costello, director of charity Square Peg, said: “If we are going to be responding to children and saying they are crying wolf and they are making it up that’s only going to push things down.”

She added that children are more “emotionally literate” and parents are more “emotionally aware of their child’s development than ever before – and that’s a good thing.”

She added: “If we can respond in a compassionate way and contain the feelings and support children by saying ‘I understand you and it’s OK, and I am here with you to help you conquer this thing’, that’s how we build resilience - in partnership rather than punishing.”

But Miriam Cates, MP for Peniston and Stocksbridge, said: “As a parent, for the normal ups and downs of life, being bullied even potentially, the right way to approach that is to support your child to get back on the horse, to learn from the failure, to step back in, to try again, because all the way through life you are going to get knocks. If you don’t learn as a child that your security is much more fundamental than how you are feeling today you are never going to grow into a resilient adult and that’s what we are seeing I am afraid in young adults today.”

The education committee, which is investigating persistent school absence, was told that some schools still do not recognise mental health problems as a valid reason for absence, and parents are being asked for evidence, which is difficult to find because of delays in the health service.

Ms Costello said “We do have instances of schools who are just refusing to authorise any kind of mental health. They do not recognise anxiety as a viable or real problem…if you are depressed, you are anxious, it doesn’t matter you still have to be here.”