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Presidential Blog

Psychologically informed policies for our children and young people

14 June 2017 | by Nicola Gale

Essentially, our Society exists to make things better for people. In the words of our new impact statement: ‘People are equipped with the everyday psychological skills and knowledge to navigate a complex world, knowing themselves and others better. Everyone can access evidence-based psychology to enhance their lives, communities and wider society.’

For many of us, nowhere is this more important than for families, and in particular our children and young people. In order for our discipline to make an impact for the better, it is clear to me we need to differentiate the contributions that psychologists, our members, make, as well as supporting them in their work to do so.

In our interactions with policy makers, our aim is that all policy should be informed by the psychological evidence, take account of complexity, including social and environmental causes, is prevention focused, and enhances human experience. I have recently been with our policy team to make these points in discussions with the Mental Health Policy team at the Department of Health. 

What might this mean in the context of children and families? We know some of the challenges are huge. Children living in poverty; adverse childhood events such as abuse, neglect, family and community violence; psychological and relational factors such as bereavement or bullying; early burden of responsibility such as being a young carer.

This week is Carers Week, focused this year on support for carers to care and meeting their own individual needs. It is therefore an appropriate moment to highlight that some quarter of a million young people are carers, and some 10% of those under 9 years old. 

There is much psychologists can offer to tackle these issues. We have a dedicated policy adviser for children and young people (Nigel Atter), coordinating an expert group of our members who work in the field from across the Society including in mental health such as in CAMHS and the voluntary sector, schools, criminal justice settings, healthcare, and developmental research. This illustrates the breadth and depth of expertise our discipline can bring to bear on complex problems.

Prevention and early intervention is key. As the recent (May 2017) Mental Health Foundation report “Surviving or Thriving? The state of the UK’s mental health”  noted, nearly two thirds of people say that they have experienced a mental health problem, rising to 7 in every 10 young adults aged 18-24. 

Colleagues are developing whole school approaches to supporting mental health in schools, mainstreaming mental health in the curriculum; in further training for teachers, pastoral and other staff; and including it in policy frameworks such as those around bullying; targeting support with appropriate outcome measures in place; and timely and accessible professional support at the right level for those who need it. Children and young people need access to evidence based interventions in good quality services which are appropriately resourced. There are approaches to building resilience.

An important area of focus is peer relationships, friendships, tackling bullying, disseminating and utilising understanding of peer pressure and need for acceptance in relation to adoption of risky behaviours. We must not forget too the importance of supporting the adults surrounding our children and young people, such as through parenting programmes, literacy support, mental wellbeing and social support; and also support for professionals who do challenging work, and need an environment in which they feel supported and encouraged to give of their best.

Commenting on social factors that can have a psychological impact is important for the Society too. We were recently quoted on the deleterious impact on ill-health prevention of any suggestion of out-of-pocket payments for care in the The House of Lords Select Committee report on the Long–term Sustainability of the NHS and Adult Social Care (April 2017). We want psychologists to be the ‘go to’ professionals to advise on this agenda, and we have an engagement plan with our views already being sought. 

The Conservative administration before the election had planned a Green Paper for Children and Young People’s Mental Health. With the hung parliament, and resulting political uncertainty at the time of writing the morning after the election, including loss of seat by the relevant Minister of State, how this agenda will be taken forward by the Government will be closely watched by us over the coming weeks.

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