Danny Bowman: There is a clear Conservative case for improving our care of young people’s mental health | Conservative Home

Danny Bowman is Head of Research and Student Engagement at the Conservative Education Society and a PhD researcher in the Department of Politics at the University of Liverpool

The mental health of children and young people is at breaking point. The effects of the pandemic and the uncertainty that has surrounded its aftermath are pushing many into crisis.  Having been separated from the normative activities of childhood, and now faced with the uncertainty of a cost of living crisis, they need the Government’s help, and they need it fast.

The latest data from NHS Digital suggests that over a million referrals were made to Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services in 2021. According to comparisons in the data, this signifies a 15 per cent increase on the previous year and the largest inflation across all speciality’s in the NHS. The good news is there are cost-effective and compassionate solutions available to tackle the negative social and economic outcomes associated with mental health disorders.

We have for too long waited until children and young people have reached crisis point before offering any form of intervention. This is a false economy with almost half of lifelong mental health problems first occurring between mid-teens and early adulthood. Research has found that young people between the ages of 16-25 with mental health problems were more likely not to be in education, employment, or training and 8 times more likely to be engaged with the criminal justice system.

These outcomes not only remove the life chances from so many of our young people but generate enormous economic costs. The long-term economic effects of mental health disorders have been outlined in a recent study by the London School of Economics. Their data suggests that mental health disorders cost the UK economy around £117.9 billion a year, with the highest costs generated from low productivity, absenteeism, and social security payments. These costs could be substantially reduced if the next Prime Minister chooses to take this issue on instead of wimping from it.

 The endemic lack of stealth across the health system and beyond is causing a delay in recovery rates and increasing the costs of mental pathologies across society. The answer to this health-based economic timebomb comes not just from the enhancement of budgets, since the most recent Conservative government invested an extra £79 million toward Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services. We also need to transition from our dependence on clinical interventions toward a new and more economically viable prevention paradigm.

The prevention paradigm would work to address psychological distress amongst our young people before it becomes acute and lifelong. The economic benefits of prevention measures have been well-established in both academic and policy research. School-based resilience programs can contribute to a reduction in the long-term economic costs of mental health disorders. Modelling suggests that upfront costs for resilience programs are far outweighed by their likely economic returns.

Early evaluations from the governments new mental health support teams show promising results through better collaboration between schools and local mental health trusts. Whilst much progress has been made in improving prevention measures under the previous two Conservative administrations, we must now build on this success and lead the world in preventing youth mental illness.

Two core steps can be taken by the next Conservative government to bolster the prevention of youth mental health problems. First, we need to construct a network of mental health hubs across the breadth of England. These hubs would provide early intervention to children and young people demonstrating the infant signs of psychological distress. The charity Young Minds have been influential in their advocation of such a network, rightly communicating its economic benefits. When we compare the economic outlay of these new hubs to traditional treatment-based interventions, their cost-effectiveness becomes irrefutably clear.

NHS England’s most recent data shows that we spend around £14.9 billion on mental health services every year. For children and adolescent mental health services, each admission equates to around £100,000 and £3000 for community-based interventions. In comparison, the maintenance of a network of mental health hubs would cost around £103 million a year. From an economic standpoint, the construction of a nationwide network of mental health hubs is a no brainer. Not to mention that interventions undertaken within these hubs could substantially reduce the need for community-based or inpatient clinical care.

Second, we need to accelerate the introduction of mental health support teams in schools. Early evidence collected by the University of Birmingham has already demonstrated the benefits of their instalment. Unfortunately, only a third of students will be covered by these innovative teams by the year 2023 with their full implementation is not expected till 2030. We need to be more ambitious and accelerate their implementation so that no young person’s talents are squandered by psychological distress. These two measures could reduce the individual, social and economic costs of mental health disorders for a generation.

The effects of the pandemic and the uncertainty surrounding its aftermath is putting children and young people’s mental health at risk. There are obvious solutions available that can render the individual, social and economic costs associated with youth mental illness. As a Conservative, I believe in bolstering the opportunities of our young people whilst encouraging evidence-based and cost-effective solutions to the issues rendering them. I know that both candidates gearing to be the next leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister of United Kingdom will also hold these views.

The two solutions posed not only promote the attainment of our young people but offer more efficient and financially viable alternatives to clinical care. It is indeed possible that decisions made by the new leader within their first 100 days could not only save the mental health of our young people but reduce the large economic costs associated with mental health disorders for a generation.

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