Back in September, the Family Planning Association was publicly worrying about the fact we were in a recession. With something rivalling the foresight of Derren Brown, they came to the conclusion that a recession would mean NHS budget cuts, and they were frightened for the future of their service. They thought that a lack of willingness to talk about sexual health issues would lead to their services being the first to be cut. Or, as they more memorably put it, their services will be the first to be cut because
no-one will complain to the local paper about a longer wait to get their genital warts seen to.
Frankly, I don’t think they need to worry so much. Whilst, perversely, sexual health services aren’t sexy, there are much less celebrated parts of the NHS. Like those that deal with children with serious mental health problems.
Back in 2006, I wrote a polemic on here about the underfunding of Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), and I guess it’s become something of a recurring theme on here. Back in 2006, services were underfunded to such an extent that 25% of the country didn’t have CAMHS crisis teams. If, like Newt in Hollyoaks, a schizophrenic teenager wants to kill themselves, there was no-one to call to get immediate specialist help. For adults, there are dedicated teams.
We’re now in 2010, at the dawn of a brave new decade, and over the intervening years not much has really changed. Just last year, The Guardian reported how many young people were waiting almost three and a half months for specialist assessment of their mental health problems – with 75% of them having no support whatsoever in the meantime.
Compare that level of service to the sexual health drop-in clinics or the guaranteed two-week cancer wait, and you begin to see the level of neglect of CAMHS in the UK.
Child and adolescent mental health problems are the very definition of unsexy. All of us regularly see tin-rattlers and chuggers asking us to support a whole range of childhood cancer charities, or raising money for hospitals like Great Ormond Street or the soon-to-be-opened Great North Children’s Hospital – All worthy causes in their own right.
But collecting-tins for children with mental health problems are very seldom seen, not because the diseases are less common, but just because of the level of public misunderstanding of the field, and a general perception that mental health problems are unpalatable.
1 in 3 of us will have cancer at some point in our lives. Similarly, 1 in 3 of us will have a mental health problem at some point in our lives. And, thanks to the chronicity of mental health problems, 1 in every 6 people are suffering with a mental health problem right now. And 1 in 10 children have a diagnosed mental health problem.
Which of those statistics have you seen on a TV ad or bus-stop poster recently? I’m guessing only the first.
Thanks to tabloid newspaper obsession and the underactive imaginations of TV and film scriptwriters, popular conception links mental illness and criminality. Criminals and the mentally ill are one and the same to many people. Of course links exist – I’d be a fool to deny that mental health problems are rife in our prisons for example (there’s a post for another day) – but when such vast numbers of people are affected, it is hardly the case than one equals the other.
Problems of perception likely affect CAMHS even more than adult services, as I’m sure many Daily Mail readers fail to believe that mental health problems can affect children: They’re probably seen as a Guardianista cover-up for naughty kids who should be caned rather than mollycoddled. Against that background, I’d wager that many people would rather write to their local newspaper about their genital warts than about their personality disordered child.
Luckily, there are some people out there who care enough to try to change the status quo. There’s a great charity called Young Minds who recently launched a manifesto on child and adolescent mental health issues, in an attempt to influence the political classes in a General Election year with a view to tackling these issues for the long-term. To his credit, Nick Clegg of the Lib Dems seems to be broadly in support of what they’re trying to do.
But the fact remains that CAMHS are chronically underfunded, and definitely underappreciated. As things stand, CAMHS win no political votes, and so when looking for things to cut, they will likely be first in the firing line.
In this context, I hardly think the Family Planning Association needs to worry. As long as preventing teenage pregnancy remains a vote-winner, their services will be well-funded.
Perhaps one day, CAMHS will be able to enjoy that level of confidence and certainty too. For the sake of our children, I hope so.
This post is based on my contribution to Episode Two of The Pod Delusion, originally broadcast on 25th September 2009. Other topics that week included the BNP on Question Time, an undercover homeopathy sting, and the future of intellectual property rights. How could you not want to listen to the whole thing at poddelusion.co.uk?