Children's Mental Health Week - a vital issue all year round

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A blog from our chief executive, Kevin Williams.

It’s Children’s Mental Health Week. I know that holding special weeks to shine a spotlight on a particular issue is really important – indeed, at The Fostering Network we organise and deliver Foster Care Fortnight! – but I hope we all agree that the mental health of children is such a vital issue we must not allow the focus on it to dissipate after this week.

The mental health of children is especially pertinent for looked after children, half of whom have a diagnosable mental health disorder. Five times as many children in care have low subjective wellbeing compared with children in the general population. Most children and young people who come into care have experienced serious neglect or been physically, emotionally or sexually abused. The issue of transforming the mental health of looked after children could not be more urgent, but there remains an insufficient focus on helping looked after children and young people to recover from the psychological impact of abuse and neglect, and promoting their resilience, mental health and emotional wellbeing.

Three-quarters of looked after children live with foster carers, so any increased focus on transforming the mental health of looked after children must have foster carers and fostering at its centre.

We consistently hear from foster carers that they are not able to access the mental health support they need for the children in their care. This is often because of high thresholds, but also because foster carers are being excluded from decision-making meetings. Foster carers are a key member of the team around the child and often the one who know and understand them best. Yet we find they are too often excluded from important meetings and their views are not sought. Foster carers must be recognised and valued as the experts who best know the children they care for; their views must always be invited and taken into consideration.

Foster carers report having to navigate through a minefield when attempting to access assessment, support and interventions for the child or young person they look after. CAMHS capacity and budget is clearly not sufficient. However, there are some interesting new suggestions being made for improving access to mental health provision, including those made by the expert working group established by the Department of Health and the Department for Education in England of which I was a member. One suggestion is the possible introduction of a virtual mental health lead (VMHL) in England. This role could play an important part in ensuring every child is getting the support they need for their mental health and emotional wellbeing. We also hope that the VMHL would play a strategic in monitoring outcomes for looked after children.

Let’s not forget that foster carers play a vital role in advocating for the mental health and wellbeing of the children in their care. That’s why, at The Fostering Network, we are passionate about ensuring that foster carers are also given appropriate support for their own mental health and wellbeing. This will allow foster carers to continue to give the best possible love and support to the children in their care, and will also help them to be good role models when it comes to health and wellbeing. We must keep pushing for these things, not just this Children’s Mental Health Week, but every week until the mental health provision for looked after children – and the carers who look after them – has improved.