The statistics speak for themselves. With more and more children struggling with their emotional wellbeing it can be challenging to know how best to provide crucial support. We asked Will van der Hart whether our society is failing these children and what, if anything, can the church do about it?
Tom (not his real name) is 8, his mother has just left three missed calls on my telephone because she, like many parents, does not know how to support him through his mental health struggles. He is part of what has been described as a mental health epidemic in the UK and yet he is also an individual child with specific needs that require attention.
The Mental Health Foundation says that 1 in 10 children are impacted by a mental health issue, but just 30% of these children receive adequate interventions at an early enough stage. This means that 70% of children who have an experience of mental ill heath will struggle to make an optimal recovery and could see their problems become more chronic.
It certainly doesn’t take much experience of pastoral ministry, teaching or social work to encounter children who are presenting mild depression or anxiety. NHS mental health services are generally very strong for children who are more acutely ill, but unfortunately many mild problems can become further entrenched and serious if they are not addressed early enough.
Having been involved in the mental health provision for the Grenfell Tower site over the last 6 months, I am quite defensive of my friends in the NHS. In my experience, they have provided a world-class response and expressed a level of care that is beyond normal professional expectations. It’s true that mental health services are underfunded and patchy across the UK but we must never undervalue the caregivers themselves.
The pressures that are fuelling this epidemic of mental distress in children and the lack of preventative activity are concerning. The charity ‘Young Minds’ reported that between 2001- 2011 admissions for young people who self-harmed increased by 68%. That is not a small anomaly in the data, that is a tanker driving through your spreadsheet.
The fact is, we can throw our hand up in horror at the failings of clinical provision and yet do nothing to actually improve the mental health of young people. Instead, we must consider how we can reduce our need for clinical services by reducing the demand and improving children’s mental wellbeing. This should be a key concern for our churches given the position we play at the centre of so many communities. We have the core tools but we need to employ them with intention and wisdom.
It’s sad to see that children from unstable or divorcing families are at greater risk of developing mental health problems than children from secure and stable families. However it’s fantastic that churches who run marriage and parenting courses are providing such a front-line ministry in the work of supporting children’s mental health. Similarly, obesity and poor diet are significant risk factors for children’s wellbeing and again these things are being addressed through church cooking clubs and education groups.
Many children need a safe, nonjudgemental person to talk to, or a group of peers to dialogue with. The church boasts an army of skilled children’s and youth workers who could provide or facilitate this very function – all we need to do is envision and equip them.
The church has always been on the frontline of mental health care, but we are in danger of reneging on our responsibilities. Whether a child needs clinical services or not, the integrative community care of the church is of great benefit. We have to see each church community, particularly our own, as a part of the solution and not wait for people to be ‘fixed’ before we get involved. The professionalisation of mental health provision is a good thing, but it does not mean that the rest of the community can just ‘leave it to the professionals’. Let’s get educated on mental health, get envisioned for the impact we can make, create partnerships with professional services and then get on with the work.
We can make a difference and in Jesus’ name I believe we will.