‘Hidden injustice’ of children’s mental health problems worse in rural areas

In Theresa May’s recent speech about her vision for a ‘shared society’, she outlined new plans to tackle children’s mental health issues. The crisis nationwide has reached unprecedented proportions, with one in three children in our classrooms suffering from a mental health problem.

One of the Government’s key proposals is to roll-out mental health training to teachers in two thirds of secondary schools by the end of next year. However, we are seeing that many of the problems begin in children of primary school age and left untreated, become significantly worse by the time they reach their teenage years. The emphasis needs to be on early intervention.

In addition, teachers are already very busy and are facing situations where children display extreme behaviours. Offering mental health training to those teachers is no real substitute for using dedicated professionals with years of experience to give children, their parents and teaching staff meaningful and appropriate support.

Added to this, teachers come into the profession to teach, and whilst they take into account the emotional needs of their pupils to a large degree, teaching requires a very different ‘mind set’ from that needed for careful and responsible mental health work.

Working with children in communities across rural Sussex, our COPES team provides just that. We offer help with issues that are impeding the child’s progress and cannot be addressed by school staff, helping the child and their parents achieve positive outcomes for a range of issues, from anxiety to social skills.

We’ve seen at firsthand the need for our services dramatically increase in recent years. In some cases, desperate parents have to wait ten months to even be assessed by the CAMHS team, let alone receive treatment. Anxiety, low self-esteem and related mental health concerns are central issues in 99% of the 90 families supported by COPEs in East Sussex during the current financial year.

As always, access to mental health services is much more difficult in rural areas, partly due to the lack of provision but also due to poor rural transport options.  In particular, parents of children with problems can feel isolated and alone, making the issues worse.

So what can be done to improve our children’s mental health?

Clearly funding is at the top of the agenda. Schools struggle to afford dedicated, in-house counsellors or seek external professionals like us while budgets are being cut.

And while we applaud the Government’s overall campaign to remove the stigma of mental health, early intervention and proper funding are needed to avoid the crisis of children’s mental health spiralling out of control. In common with many other agencies, COPES continues to apply for additional funding in order to make the service more widely available to children and families across East and West Sussex.

Judy Perraton, COPES Team Leader

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