By Andy Bell

Andy Bell, deputy Chief Executive at Centre for Mental Health

A report from the Children’s Commissioner today reported that funding for early help, or low level, mental health support for children in England had risen in real terms by some 17% since 2016/17.
 
This important and encouraging finding was slightly obscured in a report that also warned of very wide variations between local areas in investment, with a third of localities seeing a decrease in funding during that time, and dramatic differences in spending between regions.
 
While the report’s findings were mixed, it is perhaps the first sign that in some areas at least the much heralded Future in Mind strategy from 2015 is beginning to take effect. With no visible means of holding organisations to account for how the often cited investment of £1.4 billion in Future in Mind has been spent, today’s report suggests that in some areas it’s being used to boost earlier help and to bring about the transformation that was promised when the strategy was published.

With no visible means of holding organisations to account for how the  £1.4 billion has been spent, today’s report suggests that in some areas it’s being used to boost earlier help

The ‘postcode lottery’ signalled in the report is also however a reminder that localism has its risks as well as benefits, particularly in the context of prolonged austerity in local authority funding and in schools. Children’s mental health support is commissioned by local authorities and schools as much as by the NHS, and services such as counselling and parenting programmes are more likely to be funded through schools and local councils. The variations the report notes between local authority areas may hide those between individual schools.
 
Despite this, it is clear that many local areas are now investing in earlier help for children’s mental health. Such investments will not only help children and families in the short term but they will have long-term benefits too. Investing in evidence-based early intervention for children’s mental health is proven to be good value for money and can stop emergent problems escalating to the point of a damaging and costly crisis. But it is also clear that not every local area is increasing its provision, even though every part of the country produced a Local Transformation Plan in order to receive its share of funding from Future in Mind. This raises the important question of how that money has been spent, what it has bought, and how it will be sustained.

Investing in evidence-based early intervention for children’s mental health can stop emergent problems escalating to the point of a damaging crisis. But it is also clear that not every local area is increasing its provision

The response from the Department of Health and Social Care to today’s report noted the Government’s investment in more NHS mental health provision for children, including the new support teams for schools. While this is a welcome and important move, it misses the crucial point about the need for earlier help before children’s mental health difficulties have reached the threshold for NHS care, which remains the responsibility of local councils that have not received any of the extra funding the NHS was given to implement its Long Term Plan.

It is therefore crucial that the Government’s prevention green paper and Spending Review prioritise children’s mental health and get investment out to local councils to ensure they can build on what has been achieved so far and give more children a better chance of good mental health. And today’s report is a reminder of how important it is to ensure that money is spent as intended and achieves the best possible results for children, young people and families.