Are children's mental health services stuck in the dark ages?

Children's mental health services have been much in the news this week. The Guardian reported how 18 year old Ben Cowburn killed himself in an adult psychiatric unit after suffering a severe mental illness. Ben was being cared for in an adult unit because in Cornwall, like several other areas, there is no specialist provision for children or adolescents. 

The paper also reported the scandal of putting mentally ill children into police cells, quoting Dr Sarah Wollaston, the chair of the Commons health select committee, that  it was "wholly unacceptable" for under-18s who are picked up by the police because they are having a breakdown to be taken into cells rather than to a specialist medical unit.

She said: "It would be unthinkable for someone who had a broken leg, for whom there was no place to assess them in casualty, to be taken to a police cell."

Yesterday the BBC reported that care and support minister Norman Lamb is launching a task force to modernise the provision of psychiatric help for children. He says they are "stuck in the dark ages" and "not fit for purpose".

At TimeBank we recognised some time ago the challenges that young people find when they make the transition from Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) to Adult Mental Health Services (AMHS) or indeed leave NHS mental health services altogether.

We also recognised that where they are funded, CAMHS provide an excellent service to young people and often go above and beyond to ensure they get support once they leave them. It was in consultation with these clinicians that we developed The Switch, a volunteer mentoring project that aims to support those young people leaving CAMHS between the ages of 16-18. The Switch matches these young people to a volunteer mentor to support them through this challenging transition.

The change from child and adolescent to adult services can be extremely difficult to negotiate. A Young Minds Study in London found that only 4% of young people reported a good transition.  For many, it's the sudden switch to 'adulthood' that can be most difficult to manage. Overnight you can go from being an adolescent and having CAMHS, schools and/or social services involved in your care and liaising with your family - to the expectation of managing your own appointments and care. Many simply aren’t ready to do that and fall foul of the system. When the system isn’t even there as these recent reports have shown, it’s all too easy for the worst case scenario to happen.

Volunteering to support a young person with a mental health problem isn’t an easy volunteering opportunity but it’s an extraordinarily rewarding one – the sure and certain knowledge that you have been there for someone when no one else has.  Simply by chatting to a young person over a coffee or going to the gym together you’ve provided an outlet or a structure that empowers them to move on to the next phase of their life. That is incredibly satisfying. It also teaches people about the reality of mental health problems, breaks down barriers and broadens understanding.

It’s innovative and impactful solutions like this that the Government should be looking to in order to complement the professional services and indeed take pressure from them where they don’t exist or if they are failing to meet demands.

If you’d like to volunteer for The Switch, take a look here and get in touch. We’d be delighted to hear from you.