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Anna Freud releases its manifesto on how prevention and early intervention can close the gap in children and young people’s mental health

World leading mental health charity unveils five-point plan to reduce the need for costly emergency mental health support .

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Anna Freud is urging the next government to adopt its Thinking differently plan, released today (17 April), to shift the emphasis of the mental health care system from urgent, specialist care to prevention and early intervention.      

The children and young people's mental health charity believes a dangerous treatment gap has developed between the demand for help and the support available. This gap is leaving children and young people waiting months or even years1 for vital mental health support.     

The scale of the problem is increasing as demand grows. Government figures now suggest one in five young people in England has a probable mental health disorder2.     

This rise is despite an overall increase in spending on children and young people’s mental health3. So serious are the challenges facing this generation of children and young people that the charity believes a radical rethink is now needed to shift the dial and improve mental wellbeing.    Anna Freud is asking all political parties and the next government to adopt its plan to:     

  • Give young people a meaningful say in an expanded approach to prevention services: We need to double the budget currently spent on prevention and co-design solutions with children and young people who have lived experiences of mental ill-health.     

  • Focus on communities: Increased funding for community assets like parks, sports centres and libraries will build local support networks and improve wellbeing.  

  • Adopt a whole-school approach to mental health and wellbeing: This should be underpinned with the promotion of social, emotional and physical development as well as academic achievement, and more training for school staff.     

  • Widen our collective understanding of childhood trauma: This must include increased spending on developing digital prevention strategies and early intervention services for children and young people impacted by trauma.     

  • Leverage a more effective use of science and data: Policy makers should adopt a regular nationwide measurement of young people’s mental health and wellbeing and create a single point for children and young people to access resources and services.     

Key to the plan – which was funded by the Prudence Trust - is identifying children and young people whose circumstances increase their risk of developing mental ill health, and working with them, their schools and communities to co-design more timely and effective interventions.

Professor Peter Fonagy OBE, Anna Freud Chief Executive, said: Children and young people are facing a perfect storm of challenges that negatively affect their mental health. Factors including poverty, trauma, academic pressure, membership of marginalised groups and the impact of the Covid pandemic all play a part.        

Children and young people are being failed because the system generally only kicks into gear when they reach crisis point. For many, that can mean months or even years of struggle.

Members of marginalised groups, who we know are more likely to experience mental health difficulties and less likely get the help they need, should receive additional ring-fenced funding to provide extensive community led support.

The Anna Freud five-point plan will harness the lived experience of young people to inform prevention strategies and design more effective early interventions. Studies show that early intervention reduces the duration of mental health disorders and promotes better long-term outcomes4.”     

Anna Freud Young Champion Sophie, 22, from Essex has lived experience of mental health problems. She thinks young people have a vital part to play in the development of interventions. She said: “I believe active, continuous involvement of young people in policy making and service delivery is really important.     

It doesn’t make sense to exclude young people in developing services, research and policy. We’re going to be impacted and, although adults have been young people too, they need to pass the baton.     

Young people are crying out for help and saying, ‘this is what would work for us.”     

Read Anna Freud’s manifesto to find out more about the charity’s ambitions for a radical rethink of the way we support children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing.    

Additional information:   

  • 1nhsconfed

  • 2Newlove-Delgado et al..(2023)    

  • 3NHS Long-term plan  

  • 4Stephen Pilling 1 2, Peter Fonagy..(2020)  

  • Official statistics indicate that the prevalence of certain mental health conditions is rising, particularly among children and young people from marginalised groups.    

  • Research shows that mental ill health tends to be more common among children living in lower-income households.   

  • Young people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or with another minoritised sexual identity are two-and-a-half times more likely to have a mental health problem than those who identify as heterosexual.   

  • Young Black men are more likely to be referred to specialist mental health services by youth justice than their GP. This group also face daily challenges of racism and discrimination that can contribute to mental ill health.