Supporting children’s mental health & helping low-income families

This week Alison Johnstone spoke in a Holyrood debate on the best start in life for Scotland’s children.

Here's what Alison had to say...

The Scottish Green Party fought the election campaign on a range of pledges. One of them was to help parents, schools and care providers to give children in Scotland a better start in life, so we welcome the motion for the debate, which outlines several measures to do that. In my time today, I want to focus on two issues: early interventions to support children’s mental health, and programmes to help low-income families to access financial support.

Research suggests that 20 per cent of children in any given year, and about 10 per cent at any one time, have a mental health problem. As we have heard, mental health difficulties early on can have an impact throughout the life course, and some studies estimate that about 50 per cent of mental illness in adult life starts before the age of 15. I therefore warmly welcome the news that the new 10-year mental health strategy will contain a renewed focus on early identification of child mental health issues, which the Scottish Greens called for during the election.

A key part of the strategy should be to provide schools-based interventions that can quickly address emerging mental health problems. Barnardo’s Scotland reports that schools-based programmes to prevent conduct disorder through social and emotional learning programmes are some of the most cost effective, with gains worth almost £50 for every £1 that we spend. Schools-based interventions will also be key in tackling stigma and social pressure on children. We have highlighted that previously, and I was pleased to see it in the Government’s motion.

Where early years support has not worked, we must ensure that our children and young people can access the appropriate help. Although there have been some improvements, there are still long waits for treatment in some areas of the country. Between January and March this year in my region of Lothian, 66 per cent of young people waited 18 weeks or less for child and adolescent mental health services, compared to a national average of 84 per cent and almost 100 per cent in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. I ask the minister and the Government to examine why there are such large regional disparities in access to mental health support for young people.

I move on to measures to help low-income families. The Government’s proposed benefit uptake campaign is a good start, but more can be done to help families, in particular, to access financial support. To that end, I lodged an amendment to the motion to urge the Government to consider the Green manifesto pledge on there being national roll-out of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde’s healthier, wealthier children initiative. The project trains health workers and midwives to assist families to maximise their income. Among other types of help, it does that by helping them to access support to apply for benefits to which they are entitled but often do not claim because of a lack of understanding about benefits or a hesitancy to approach the benefit authorities.

The healthier, wealthier children campaign has been an outstanding success. Between its launch in October 2010 and May 2016, a total of just more than 11,000 referrals to money advice services were made across the NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde area, with a total annual financial gain of £11.6 million. Some families gained as much as £3,400, which obviously has a massive impact on their quality of life.

Child welfare academics from the University of Edinburgh have recently argued that extending such approaches could help to address child poverty across Scotland. Although my amendment was not selected, I urge the Government to consider national roll-out of the scheme. Alongside the other measures that are referred to in the motion, it would be a small change that would have a huge positive impact for some of the most financially vulnerable people in our society.