The government has made a “major omission” in plans to improve children and young people’s mental health by failing to commit to a significant boost to the number of school nurses in England, according to a union representing healthcare staff.
“Enforceable targets” on the number of school nurses must be included in the government’s green paper, said Unite, which noted the NHS had seen that part of its workforce decrease by 20% – or 616 posts – since 2010.
“This green paper lacks the scope and the boldness needed to properly address the burning injustice of young people’s mental ill health”
In its response to a consultation on the green paper, Unite called on the government to introduce a major programme for increasing the number of school nurses, similar to one that was brought in for health visitors by the coalition government between 2011 and 2015.
However, it also warned that the rise in the number of health visitors achieved under the coalition government’s targets was now at risk of being “wiped out” by the end of the year due to cuts by local councils.
It noted there had been a 19% decline in the number of NHS health visitors since the commissioning of public services transferred from the NHS over to local councils in 2015.
Targets under the previous government’s Health Visitor Implementation Plan must be reintroduced or else “untold damage” will be done to the ambition to see improvements in children’s mental health, warned Unite, which includes the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association.
“It is not sufficient to discharge responsibility to local authorities by stating ‘it is an issue for local authorities to decide how they allocate their resource’,” said Unite, which accused the government of taking a “laissez faire approach”.
As part of its green paper proposals, the government wants to see each school and college incentivised to train a designated individual who is responsible for overseeing students’ mental health and wellbeing.
“Ministers also need to boost school nurses and health visitor numbers to improve mental health and well-being outcomes”
In addition, the government wants to see new local mental health support teams set up, supervised by NHS mental health staff, to work with those in the new role in schools.
It also wants to reduce waiting times for children accessing NHS mental health services – down to four weeks, according to the policy document, called Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision: a green paper.
But Unite said it was “unclear” why health professionals such as school nurses, educational psychologists and counsellors should only be required to work closely with the new mental health support teams, instead of being a part of them.
The union also questioned how far the introduction of a designated individual to oversee mental health in a school could be claimed as ambitious by the government, due to the fact at least half of all schools have this position already in place.
Unite said it agreed with the role being in place in all schools in England, but recommended that the government make it a requirement, monitored by the regulator Ofsted, rather than expecting schools to be incentivised to bring it in.
The proposed waiting time targets were also ”nowhere near bold enough,” said Unite, calling for a more stringent target and for the number of mental health staff to be increased at “significant scale and pace”.
It highlighted that the number of mental health nurses in the NHS had fallen by 11% since 2010, down from 40,630 to 35,991.
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Unite lead professional officer for mental health Dave Munday said: “This green paper lacks the scope and the boldness needed to properly address the burning injustice of young people’s mental ill health.
“The government needs to broaden the scope of its ambition with an increased focus on early years support,” he said. “Ministers also need to boost school nurses and health visitor numbers to improve mental health and well-being outcomes.
“Ultimately, government ministers need to wake up to the damage and distress that its austerity agenda is having on people’s health and well-being. The green paper ignores this reality, and therefore, improvements to children and young people’s mental health will be significantly impeded,” he added.