The state of young people’s mental health

To coincide with World Mental Health Day, guest blogger, young person and professional Kat Cormack looks at the state of young people’s mental health in 2013 and examines access to treatment, perception of people with mental health issues and stigma.

So here we are on the week of World Mental Health Day 2013 and I can’t believe a year has passed already since the last one.

It’s also ten years since I started receiving mental health treatment and so now seems to me like a good time to take stock and see what is currently happening in children and young people’s mental health. I guess that makes this my “State of the mental health nation” speech.

Mental health, illness and everything in between is a massive area and I could talk to you about everything from ADHD to Z-drugs but then this would be less blog and more book: or five! So I’m going to focus on a few areas that I feel make for good indicators to assess the health of our mental health and services.

The last 10 years have been huge for me, seeing me going from a severely ill 14-year-old to a moderately ill but high functioning adult. In this time I have gone from being a student at school using CAMHS to someone who now works for the NHS and with YoungMinds (and occasionally uses Adult Mental Health Services).

I have also spent five years working with YoungMinds, the Royal College of Psychiatrists as well as completing an undergraduate degree in Psychology where my dissertation was based on young people’s experiences of transitions from CAMHS to adult services. This puts me in a somewhat unique situation (not unlike a tightrope at times) of being a professional, a “young person” and a service user all at once.

So where do we begin? I think two of the most salient indicators are access to treatment and perception of people with mental health issues. These are the two areas I will be covering in this blog.

Access to treatment

Asking for help with a mental health problem is daunting. I’m not going to lie. It takes courage to admit that things aren’t right and that you’re struggling and I commend everyone who takes this first step.

For most young people the first port of call is their GP, it was for me too. Ten years ago when I first asked for help my GP (newly qualified) had no idea about mental health having received no real training in the area. At the time I didn’t think much of it but looking back that’s pretty shocking given that such a high percentage of GP visits are related to mental health.

Fast forward 10 years and some progress has been made and I have met a lot of GPs who are very much up to speed with mental health and act accordingly. However many still have limited training and understanding and I have had my fair share of run-ins with GPs who are ignorant to the point of negligence. This needs to change. We cannot keep telling young people just to “talk to a teacher or your doctor” if they’re worried if we don’t then train these professionals to respond appropriately.

After seeing the GP for many young people they are referred to CAMHS. However we know that waiting lists are still unacceptably long with many young people waiting months (or even up to 18 months) for the support they so desperately need. This is not acceptable.

There is much talk of bringing about “parity of esteem”, to put it simply this means we need to start treating mental health as seriously as we treat physical health and that includes holding services to account to the same waiting times. You wouldn’t have to wait 18 months to get a broken leg fixed!

Another big problem we face in 2013 is the increasingly savage cuts to health and social care. Through an FOI request YoungMinds found that two thirds of local authorities have cut their budgets for children and young people’s mental health services since the coalition government came to power in 2010. One service suffered cuts of 41%. (Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/21737173)

At a time when even more children and young people are experiencing mental health problems the last thing we can afford to do is cut services. Children and young people are not immune to the effects of the recession which have lead to a surge in family breakdown, youth unemployment and stress for young people. And as Tier 3 services like children’s centers are closed the burden increasingly falls even more heavily on CAMHS which was struggling as it was 10 years ago when I first came into contact with them.

With three in every classroom affected by a mental health problem we are letting down too many children and young people.

This is why I am happy to hear that many schools are beginning to ask more organisations like the wonderful BodyGossip to come in and talk to their students. I’m also glad that there is a lot more talk of teaching children resilience and even screening for mental health issues from the age of 7.

Perception of mental illness

Another area that I have watched with interest over the last decade is the way mental illness is viewed and the stigma associated with it.

Thankfully I can say that we’re making some progress with this. When I was at school we never ever heard about mental illness. Now we have amazing campaigns like Time to Change’s Stand Up Kid, YoungMinds in Schools, Student Minds, The Acseed initiative and Mental Wealth.

But we still have a long way to go. I may now be very open about my mental health, something I definitely didn’t feel able to do 10 years ago, but I am part of a minority. I am lucky enough to have the support of my family, friends and importantly my employer. This has not always been the case and I have suffered discrimination in the workplace because of my health as have many thousands of others. We need to create an environment in our country where it is okay to talk about how we feel.

I think that the recent ASDA/Tesco “mental patient” costume scandal is a very good example of some of the stigma we still face in society. Although having said that, the fact that this story hit the news as hard as it did is actually quite heartening. It wouldn’t have made mainstream news 10 years ago.

I also recently ran into the anti-psychiatry movement founded by Scientology, the ironically named Citizens Commission on Human Rights. As I stated in my blog here this was really shocking for me. I know people struggle with the idea that children can experience distress and mental illness but to run head first into people that don’t believe that mental illness exists at all?

There is definitely a lot of work still to be done to help educate people but I also know that there are lots of fantastic organisations, too many to name, fighting daily to reduce stigma and increase awareness.

So overall how is the state of children and young people’s mental health in 2013? I don’t think we can say clearly that it is “better” or “worse” than it was 10 years ago. There have been improvements, there have been set backs but perhaps, if I am dangerously optimistic, I would say things are gradually improving in some ways.

What we need now is for proper investment in children and young people’s mental health, and in mental health in general. For too long it has been a Cinderella service and we cannot continue this way. Research shows both that over half of adults with a mental health issue developed it by the age of 14 and that prevention and early intervention work and save both money, and more importantly lives, in the long run.

Advertisements

My run in with the Scientology Anti-Psychiatry movement

Something happened at the conference this week that i need to talk about. It’s not the most positive thing which is perhaps why it stood out so much, and to me in particular. The conference itself was fantastic, i cannot express how much i got out of it.

Unfortunately we had some unwelcome visitors.

We had Scientologists.

Well okay not full blown Xenu worshipping Scientologists but rather members of the anti-psychiatry movement set up by them and Thomas Szasz. The ironically named Citizens Commission of Human Rights.

Image

Thomas Szasz was a psychiatrist that believed that mental illness doesn’t exist and had some very strong views on the matter. As a psychology undergraduate i had a lecturer who was a big fan of Szasz and i remember leaving those classes shaking with anger after long arguments. Eventually i complained to another lecturer who managed to get him to tone down his classes-obviously he was unaware that several of his students were struggling with some pretty heavy mental health issues (20% of students experience depression so no surprise). The last thing we needed or wanted to hear was that mental illness didn’t exist and it was very distressing for me in particular as someone who has a long, painful history of mental health problems.

This may sound oxymoronic but i’m quite a lucky crazy person. I am out of the mental health closet to just about everyone and am lucky enough to have the support of a wonderful partner, my family, friends and my place of work.

I have worked with YoungMinds, the NHS, The Royal College of Psychiatrists and many more and have an incredible platform to speak out about young people’s mental health-the conference this week is a great example.

It’s not that i forget that stigma exists, god no. I still experience it from time to time, i have done in the past too. I’ve seen the devastating effects in friends and family and i know that stigma is a big part of the reason that 70% of people with a mental health problem don’t get treatment.

But perhaps i live in a bit of a bubble. I forget sometimes that some people don’t even believe mental illness exists. That blows my mind to be honest both as a service user, a professional and as a human being.

So the conference was going well. A meeting of like minded people from across the world. We came together to find solutions and to try and help young people.

Someone clearly didn’t get that message to the CCHR.

So they turn up, thankfully get barricaded by security at the Brighton Dome (you guys were wonderful, thankyou) and start shouting.

A really rubbish photo-i wasn't meant to be taking one at all!

A really rubbish photo-i wasn’t meant to be taking one at all!

To sum up briefly their arguments:

  • Mental illness doesn’t exist
  • Children do NOT get mental health problems
  • Psychiatry is just about drugging children and turning them into zombies.

When they turned up at first there were just three of them, i approached them, the acronym (CCHR) on their tshirts was familiar but i couldn’t remember why.

Me: “Hi, where are you from then?”
Them: “We’re from the CCHR, we’re here to protest this conference”

We had a remarkably civil conversation. They stated their views. I countered every point they gave with statistics and my own experiences.

Them: “We don’t believe that mental illness exists, these people are drugging children and turning them into zombies. Where is the evidence?”

I calmly disagreed.

Me: “I’m sorry but i can’t agree. You see i was a mentally ill child. I had problems from the age of 6. I didn’t get treatment until i was 14 and i did have medication but i had to fight for it and you know what some of it helped”

I went to walk off and then stopped dead in my tracks. Something had clicked. I suddenly knew where i had heard that acronym before.

Me: “You’re not Scientologists are you?”
Them: “Well no. Our organiation was set up by Scientology and Thomas Szasz”.
Me: “Ahh i see”

And i walked off.

Then the others arrived and there were a lot of them. They shouted at the delegates, hurling abuse. They chanted “we don’t need n o thought control” and other slogans and intimidated everyone including the young people attending the conference.

I went back into the building to warn my friends not to go outside and promptly had a bit of a breakdown.

I ended up upstairs in the chill out area shaking uncontrollably and close to tears.

“How dare they?” i asked. How dare they question and dismiss my pain? How dare they tell me that the last 18 years of my illness didn’t happen.

Also, how misguided they are. I was at the conference for three days. Not ONE talk was pro-medication or pro-restraint. We talked about using technology to help young people, about participation and co-production.

My favourite moment however was this:

I went outside to get away from the protest and went for a cigarette with a friend. As we walked back my confidence surged. I wasn’t going to take this any more.

I saw two children standing apart from the protest. They can’t have been more than 10 years old and they were chanting the same ridiculous slogans as the adults. Something about this really struck me. These were the children we may end up helping in the future. They deserve better than Scientology’s lies.

I walked up to a young boy, put my hand on his shoulder and said to him

“You know, you should check out the YoungMinds website when you get home. They will educate you better than these people will”

And walked off.

The crowd was furious and started shouting at me, demanding to know what i had said. I held my head high and walked past back into the conference and didn’t look back.