There is growing concern about the rising rates of mental illness in children and young people, for whom suicide is one of the leading causes of death. One in 10 children between the ages of five and 16 has a clinically diagnosable mental problem, and many go into adulthood with serious unresolved problems. Indeed 50% of mental health problems in adults were identifiable by the age of 14.
It’s clear that helping children and young people who are struggling with anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts is crucial to their current and future wellbeing. Fortunately the right kind of expert help at the right time makes a huge difference. Unfortunately, services for children and young people’s mental health (known as CAMHS – child and adolescent mental health services) are under severe threat across the country from cuts that began several years ago and are set to continue, despite all the warm rhetoric of government about investing in children’s mental health.
In our London borough of Lewisham the CAMHS budget was set to lose £150,000 of council funding over the next two years. This would have meant the loss of several skilled child mental health practitioners from an already depleted team. And that would have meant even longer waits – it’s currently several months – for assessment and treatment. Even more children would have been rejected because their problems were deemed not severe enough to meet an ever rising threshold – a threshold determined not by need but by available resources.
In response, people in Lewisham organised to fight the planned cuts and two weeks ago we won.
Our campaign, formed in December 2017, was spearheaded by CAMHS staff members through their union Unite, and supported by local campaigners in the Save Lewisham Hospital Campaign. Right from the start it involved CAMHS practitioners, current and former service users, parents and teachers.
We wrote detailed briefings which informed councillors and MPs. We made freedom of information requests to obtain key budget and workforce information. Lewisham’s three MPs were helpful. Questions were asked in parliament. Our lobbying led to an invitation to address a council committee, and when councillors heard from clinicians and families what the human impact of the cuts would be, many changed their minds.
What we did in Lewisham can happen everywhere – there is power when people come together
We organised a public meeting, and distributed 10,000 leaflets. More than 100 people attended what was an uplifting and moving occasion. Several speakers gave personal accounts of mental distress and how they had been helped. One young person who had been in CAMHS as a teenager said she would not have been alive to speak were it not for the help she had been given. A father spoke of his anger that cuts could lengthen the waiting list that his son is on after attempting suicide. The local MP Vicky Foxcroft spoke and Jon Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, sent a message of support.
The campaign petition had been signed by 11,000 people when the mayor and cabinet met to review their decision. We lobbied them with a huge Valentine card carrying messages from parents, staff, service users and campaigners written on hearts. The message? “Don’t tear the heart out of CAMHS.” The mayor personally accepted the card and petition. He asked why CAMHS should be ring-fenced when other services were being cut. We replied: “If services for children’s critical mental health are being cut, politicians have surely lost the plot.”
The No Cuts to CAMHS campaign had struck a nerve. The mayor overturned the cuts, a decision ratified by the council the following week.
Now we urge people in the NHS, public services and their communities to get organised. What we did in Lewisham can happen everywhere – there is power when people come together. With the build-up to local elections under way in many areas councils are feeling the pressure. We hope our example will inspire others to fight back and not accept cuts as inevitable.
• Louise Irvine is a Lewisham GP and chairs Save Lewisham Hospital Campaign and Health Campaigns Together. Tony O’Sullivan is a retired paediatrician in Lewisham and co-chair of Keep Our NHS Public
• In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.