The recently released NHS Long Term Plan for mental health services was broadly well-received by all stakeholders. However, it was not beyond criticism. Many NHS professionals raised doubts about how achievable some of the plan’s aims were in the context of funding and staffing pressures.

One aspect of the NHS Long Term Plan covered the existing commitment from the government to improve the access that pupils have to mental health services. Concern had already been expressed by MPs and mental health campaigners that the initial target of the scheme was to reach just 25% of areas by 2023. Many people thought this was far too little to achieve in such a time scale, considering the growing problem of mental health issues among young people.

Worse still, the NHS Long Term Plan suggests that the full roll-out of mental health services could take as long as ten years. The plan states that by the academic year 2023-24, an extra 345,000 pupils will have access to new school-based mental health services support teams, as well as being able to gain support from local health services.

However, the bombshell revealed in the NHS Long Term Plan that improved access to mental health services for pupils may take a full decade to reach all schools in the country is the statistic that has grabbed the headlines. It is a damning admission that exposes the inadequacies of the government’s scheme. It simply doesn’t look good enough that it could take so long for all children to be able to access the specialist care they need – especially as some children need such support today, if not yesterday.

Criticism of the government’s plans is widespread

It’s over a year now since the government published its green paper on children and young people’s mental health. However, despite the promise to allocate £300 million to fund mental health professionals to work with and in schools, criticism of the government’s plans has showed little sign of abating.

The green paper set out funding of £95 million for schools. This will enable schools to train or appoint designated senior leads for mental health services – a scheme set to begin from this year. Furthermore, an additional £215 million was pledged to fund mental health support teams. The intention is that these teams will work in partnership with the NHS to deliver a range of support in schools, including treatments such as cognitive behaviour therapy.

However, the Parliamentary Education and Health Committees published a damning report last year which savaged the government’s proposals. The report criticised the plans for not being ambitious enough and warned that extra pressure will be placed on teachers as a result, without providing schools with the much-needed additional resources.

The committees also heavily criticised the government’s timetable for implementation, so the confirmation found in the NHS Long Term Plan that some children and young people could wait up to 10 years to access specialist mental health care will do little to alleviate concerns about existing and future mental health services provision in schools.

Could there be a greater role for the NHS to play in schools?

One interesting point in the NHS Long Term Plan is the revelation that the government is considering whether the NHS might take on a greater role, in terms of being responsible for commissioning community health services, health visitors and school nurses. At present, public health services such as these are funded and commissioned by local councils, but the plan stipulates that this may come under review in the future.

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