The data emerging during this pandemic backs up what we all instinctively understand: that the uncertainty, isolation, and effects of the virus on families and friends have caused many people to experience mental health issues.
I want young people to be happy, energetic and optimistic about their futures. Yet we cannot ignore that the scars left by Covid-19 will continue to impact the mental health of students beyond this academic year.
It is hard to speak publicly about one’s own experiences with mental illness. I first did so when I wrote about my own teenage years earlier this year.
Mental health and teenagers
I was overwhelmed by the messages that I received. They came from all across the country, from some who had suffered in the past and from others who are living through it now, either personally or with someone they love.
Many of those who contacted me said that reading my story had enabled them to seek the support and help they need.
For me, what started out as a harmless diet snowballed into a sickness, anorexia, which for too long has been such a taboo word and illness. It dominated my life and I became obsessed with the one thing I could control: my diet. I focused on eating as little as possible and did not recognise how sick I had become.
Sadly, we know that Covid-19 is putting vulnerable young people at further risk.
Covid and mental health risks
Isolation, loneliness, a lack of control over your life: these are the words young people use when they tell me how their lives are afflicted by mental illness. It’s what Covid-19 has brought to many lives and why we have seen increasing numbers of people experiencing anorexia and bulimia in England during the pandemic.
If we are going to support these young people properly, of course we need to overcome the outdated stigma of it. But we also need to make sure the support is there early on.
In my own illness, I had the shoulders of my family and the support of so many friends. I was lucky and quickly recovered.
I know that many children and young people face bigger mountains than I overcame – and that not all of them were as fortunate to have a support system that helped get me back on track.
So, as our country comes together to rebuild after the devastation of this pandemic, supporting mental health must be at the forefront of all that we do.
Teachers do an incredible job but they cannot be mental health professionals, and schools cannot provide specialist health services. They can, however, understand what children and young people are going through, support pupils to seek help and continue support as they are going through treatment.
That is why we have announced a mental health and wellbeing investment package that will offer 7,500 schools and colleges a grant to pay for senior mental health lead training.
Financial support for schools
Backed by £9.5 million, this training will provide a senior member of staff with the knowledge and skills to lead change within their school or college. This will spread understanding of mental health problems through staff, helping to design pastoral programmes to address the issues that their pupils have, and knowing when and how to seek help.
At the same time, we are putting a further £7 million into a Wellbeing for Education Recovery programme – delivering quickly on an action from our new Mental Health in Education Action Group, which includes our youth ambassador, Dr Alex George.
This builds on the success of our Wellbeing for Education Return, which got under way last September and has resulted in more than 90 per cent of councils offering schools free expert training, support and resources to help young people, staff or parents dealing with trauma, anxiety and grief.
And bringing the total to £17.4 million for schools and colleges, we will provide close to £1 million on a reformed Link Programme that brings together mental health experts and education staff to improve joint ways of working in local areas, so that children and young people receive the mental health support they need.
But parents know all too well that this is not just about education.
Our mental health recovery action plan is supported by an extra £500 million to make sure we offer the right support over the coming year to help people with a variety of mental health conditions.
At the same time, a ring-fenced local investment fund, worth at least £2.3 billion a year in real terms, by 2023-24 will ensure that the NHS provides high-quality, evidence-based mental health services to an additional two million people
Linked to this, we are asking for views on how to improve health services for women.
Women and mental health
Women can face damaging taboos when wanting to start conversations about their health – my own experience with anorexia has convinced me of that. The caring GP I had the good fortune of speaking to when I was struggling to eat helped get me on track to recovery. But this call for evidence aims to better understand women’s experiences of the health and care system.
Our new Relationship, Sex and Health Education curriculum is an important milestone. It will enable open discussions around mental health and wellbeing while also improving knowledge of female health issues, so pupils can learn about problems properly – and so, hopefully, young people who, like me, might become anorexic can realise as soon as possible that it is an illness, not a life sentence.
But there is further to go. Only by understanding women’s experiences can we improve knowledge among all clinicians about women’s health, addressing issues that may previously have been swept under the carpet or misdiagnosed, such as post-partum depression, eating disorders and rising cases of self-harm among young girls.
We are doing this now because it is an urgent task and must not be put off any longer. While this week is the start of Mental Health Week, children across the country depend on support now and throughout the year. I will do all I can to make sure that support will be there.
Vicky Ford MP is children and families minister