While the government was busy trying to cut tax credits for some of our poorest families, and while millions were watching Panorama’s documentary on the calamitous impact of cuts to mental health services, I was at an inspiring event which showed how a little investment in mental health can lead to savings as well as improved lives.
It was a presentation cum fundraiser for Kidstime, a charity which supports the children of mentally ill parents, and in particular for their ‘Who Cares?’ project to help young carers.
The stars of the show were the young people who spoke of how this tiny charity, operating in a tiny number of schools, had helped them. A young man from Plymouth, Joel, who said quite simply ‘Kidstime saved my life,’ helping not just him to understand the nature of his father’s illness, but helping his teachers and fellow pupils too. A film showed the impact that an open group discussion had on his classmates. A teacher spoke of how the whole culture of the school had been improved.
Then there was a young woman called Kirsty, one of Kidstime’s earliest success stories, the daughter of two parents with severe mental health issues, now on her way to getting a degree, and full of confidence and inspiration as she spoke, family members watching on proudly.
But the quote of the night for me came from a young girl called Cacharel, aged ten or eleven, who lives at home with her often profoundly depressed mother and younger siblings. As her Mum told me later, Cacharel is a carer of an adult and two children.
Cacharel said to the audience something that really moved me. ‘I love talking about mental illness.’ When I talked to her later she said what she meant was that Kidstime had given her permission to be open and frank about what she felt about her mother’s illness, and also to understand that just as she needed to give support to her family, she also knew there was support for her too.
Kidstime operates in eight schools, just eight, in the whole country. NHS England provides some of the funding, which is great, but if only every young carer could have access to the kind of support that Cacharel, Kirsty and Joel have had, then down the track we would be making big savings. What we saw last night were young people who, given a little support, now have the confidence and the resilience they need to make something of their lives; not to have to repeat patterns of behaviour generation to generation; and in all three the ability to lead and to make change.
When I spoke to close the meeting, I said the reason Cacharel’s words so inspired me was because at most meetings I do on mental health, far from people ‘loving’ talking about mental illness, at the end I am always approached by a little gaggle of what I call ‘the whisperers.’ These are people who feel they can talk to me about mental health problems, because I have been open about mine, but don’t feel they can open up in front of strangers.
What Cacharel showed is the confidence that comes from feeling there need be no shame attached to being open about mental illness. Her generation, Joel and Kirsty’s generation, are the ones who will change this debate for good. If only the government could see that investing just a little now would lead to huge savings in the future.
Instead, as Panorama viewers saw, mental health service providers are running to stand still. The ‘least unwell patient’ is being discharged early to make way for the emergency. The understanding that there must always be some spare capacity both to cater for emergencies but also to create a therapeutic environment is being eroded.
The good news is that awareness and understanding are improving. The bad news is that as that continues to happen, the demand for services will grow, and they won’t be properly met. This can only be turned around if, instead of looking to cut further on mental health spending, ministers realise they need to invest more to save more in future. Kidstime shows it can be done.