As an MP, the most important part of my job is to listen to my constituents and do my very best to help them.
There are cases that always stay with you. I will never forget the anguished words of a mother who contacted me because, despite trying everything she could, she was struggling to get the mental health support that her nine-year-old boy so desperately needed.
She told me that “he used to be such a lovely happy little boy and now he’s so sad. I’m terrified for his future. All I’ve ever wanted was to help my son and I’ve failed and fallen at every hurdle.”
I expressed her pain when I presented my bill in parliament this week to introduce a mental health practitioner in every school.
My constituent’s case is it is not an unusual one. I speak to teachers and education leaders across the country who tell me one of the biggest challenges they currently face is poor mental health.
In fact, data suggests that there are 1 in 5 children with a probable mental health disorder.
That is six children in every classroom. If such numbers of children had diabetes or asthma, we wouldn’t be discussing whether we needed to put both proper treatment and preventative measures in place.
We would just do it.
Mental health is no different to physical health and should be treated no differently.
Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of those working within children’s mental health services, the sector is on its’ knees.
To be clear, these services before the pandemic were inadequate. But the huge surge in demand brought about by the pandemic has left services struggling to keep up.
The impacts on children and young people having to wait so long for this support, or not being able to access it at all, are catastrophic.
One of the most alarming trends in our schools is the growing number of children that are persistently absent.
Last term a fifth of children missed on average a day of school every fortnight. Mental health is one of the main factors driving this.
According to new data from Young Minds, more than one in five children waiting for mental health support have missed more than six months of school.
This has a huge impact on their education and ultimately their prospects. Moreover, three quarters of these children had stopped exercising, doing hobbies and even seeing friends.
These children should be carefree and enjoying themselves. Instead, their lives are on hold, and their life chances diminished because they can’t access the support they bravely asked for.
Putting a dedicated and qualified mental health practitioner in every school would give every child access to care and support from the moment they started needing it.
Early intervention is crucial as research tells us that half of all lifetime mental health disorders start before the age of 14.
Stepping in early before issues escalate and giving children the tools to best manage their mental health is crucial to ensuring the long-term health of our younger generations.
That is why it is so important that provision for mental health professionals is made not just in secondary schools, but primary schools too.
Of course, schools should not have to fund such provision themselves. Too many are struggling to afford the basics, and sadly some of those that have found their own money for mental health support are being forced to cut back.
My bill makes clear that funding needs to be made available for this proposed statutory duty for all state schools.
Using the “polluter pays” principle, Liberal Democrats have proposed funding these mental health practitioners through tripling the digital services tax on our big social media companies, given the harm they have contributed to our children’s mental health.
Making this provision and enacting my bill would ensure that children have the tools they need to thrive into adulthood, and it would save our NHS money in the long term.
It is an investment. An investment that – for the sake of our children and the future of our country – we must make.