The road to better mental health services for young people will be a long and difficult one, but it’ll be worth it

This evening I spent a few hours at the Scottish Parliament.

Having got past the long queue at security (apparently there were eight events on tonight!), I was ushered across the public reception area and through some rather unassuming security doors, along a corridor which runs parallel to the debating chamber, and into the sycamore clad – and rather imaginatively named – P1.02 room.

Despite its dull name, I was there to take part in something much more interesting – the Cross Party Group (CPG) on Mental Health.

CPGs provide an opportunity for MSPs, outside organisations and members of the public to meet and discuss a particular cause or subject. This meeting was going to focus on one of the biggest public policy issues of our time – young people’s mental health.

Three expert speakers had been lined up – Dr Elaine Lockhart from the Royal College of Psychiatry in Scotland, Deva MacGinty and Zee Timmins MSYP from LGBT Youth Scotland, and Thomas McEachan MSYP.

Dr Lockhart began, and she opened with something which underlines why this topic is so important. She said research shows there are two points in life that really shape you as a person: your first year and your adolescence. For her, and in fact for all the speakers, this is why this topic is so important.

But despite much good will, and the fact that as a society we are more open about our mental health than ever before, the CPG heard that our system still does not deliver what young people need.

Many teachers are not properly equipped to help young people who are experiencing difficulties, and often even professionals in acute settings like A&E do not know how to respond to specific issues like self harm. What’s more, just one bad experience can have repercussions.

“A young person comes to hospital with an issues like self harm for the first time only once, and that first response is vitally important”, Dr Lockhart said. The point she was making was clear – if a child reaches out for support and gets an inadequate response, this can dissuade them from reaching out for help again. An initial mistake or a failure to properly grasp the severity of a problem can have a significant and long term negative impact.

Deva MacGinty and Zee Timmins MSYP from LGBT Scotland also raised concerns about how health professionals responded to young gay, bi and trans people who sought mental health support. MacGinty and Timmins said some health professionals were too quick to identify problems as LGBT issues, rather than as a ‘bona fide’ mental health difficulties. They said young gay, bi and trans people were often bounced between CAMHS and LGBT groups without being able to access appropriate help.

This theme – the need for easily accessible local mental health support – ran through the whole discussion. And one statistic from Thomas McEachan MSYP illuminated just how much work there is to do.

McEachan said research by the Scottish Youth Parliament – which involved a whopping 1500 responses – found three quarters of young people did not know what help was available in their local area. (And the figure for young people who had experienced mental health problems was not much better – 70% were in the dark about local services.)

McEachan said that even when young people did find out about local support, much of the information was written for adults.

So what is the answer to all this?

Well, McEachan said the Scottish Youth Parliament believed mental health forums for young people in each local authority area would help to tackle the awareness problem. And he said more counselling should be available in schools and colleges too.

For Dr Lockhart, part of the answer was more community based services and more funding. She highlighted the Scandinavian countries, where services are generally better resourced, as a good model to follow. As an example, she said, the typical stay in a mental health hospital for a young person in the West of Scotland is 40-50 days. Whereas in Sweden it is only a week, with much more support where the person lives.

The road to better mental health services for young people will be a long and difficult one. Without doubt there are many views on what needs to be done (there certainly was at the CPG tonight). But whatever your views, one statistic always sticks out to me.

Research has found that 50% of all mental health problems are established by age 14 and 75% by age 24. Surely the lesson from this is clear – get mental health support right for young people, and we will be a long way down the road to getting it right for everyone.

The Conservatives are concerned about their young vote, and the budget proves it

Government budgets are typically dry occasions filled with ‘long economicy’ words – a new phrase coined today by Chancellor Philip Hammond. But whilst the Chancellor did cover the economics this afternoon, the Government’s first budget since it limped back into office earlier this year was anything but typical.

Ordinarily, post-election the Chancellor stands at the dispatch box and announces the unpopular changes he wants to make, safe in the knowledge that the next election is several years away.

This approach – getting any hard decisions out of the way early on – means the Government can offer the electorate the popular parts of their programme at the end of their term, when an election is just around the corner.

Philip Hammond ditched this well-established tactic in spectacular fashion today. Rather than tightening the country’s metaphorical belt, his budget had the feel of pre-election bonanza. It made concessions on universal credit, froze duty on beer (always a winner), increased the living wage rate, upped the income tax thresholds, and more.

Some have suggested it was a budget from a Government (led by a Prime Minister) which is deeply uncertain about its future.

But, it was the Chancellor’s so-called ‘rabbit out of the hat’ – the unexpected announcement designed to win favour amongst key voters – which tells us most about the concerns at Conservative HQ.

Hammond’s big announcement was the abolition of stamp duty for first time buyers. It came at the end of his speech, after the Chancellor outlined plans (some quite vague) to encourage housebuilding and trotted out that well worm phrase – “successive governments have not built enough homes”.

Along with increases in the Living Wage and proposals for a rail card which extends the definition of ‘young’ up to 30, this announcement hints at the big problem for the Government – the so-called ‘millennials’.

After they unexpectedly turned out on mass for Corbyn and deprived the Government of its majority, the Conservatives are starting to get the message: issues for young people – like housing, living costs, and education – can no longer go unaddressed.

Will today’s budget address these concerns? I doubt it. But it is a start.

The narrative flowing through Hammond’s speech was about the Government embracing the future – new technology like electric vehicles – whilst Labour would take the country back to the past. It was a theme which the Prime Minster touched on at PMQs when she called Corbyn a “blast from the past”, and a narrative which I expect will be central to a future Conservative campaign.

But whichever way the Government frames today’s budget, be sure that it was the Conservative’s disastrous election campaign which forced its hand. It just goes to prove, voting does matter.

Penumbra Podcast published on Universal Children’s Day focuses on young people’s mental health

Abbie Henderson – the creator of the My Body My Way programme – speaks to Robin from the mental health charity Penumbra about young people’s mental health, and specifically negative body image.

The Podcast has been released on Universal Children’s Day, which was established in 1954 and is celebrated on 20 November each year to promote international togetherness and improve children’s welfare.

The latest Podcast episode can be streamed on Soundcloud:

Leonard beats rival Sarwar in race to become Scottish Labour Leader – is the party turning leftward?

Political newcomer Richard Leonard MSP has seen off former Deputy Leader Anas Sarwar to become the new leader of Scottish Labour.

The result of the contest was announced at an event in Glasgow today (18 November 2017).

In a vote reminiscent of the Jeremy Corbyn vs Owen Smith showdown, former trade union organiser Leonard – who is associated with the left of the party – outpolled former MP and current MSP Anas Sarwar – considered by many to be the more centrist candidate.

The election makes Leonard, who speaks with a clear Yorkshire accent, the first party leader in the history of the Scottish Parliament to be born outside Scotland.

But it is the triumph of Leonard’s left-field agenda, rather than his brogue, which makes his election remarkable.

Despite a long-standing desire among many party members to occupy the ideological space to the left of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Scottish Labour members have in recent times backed more ‘moderate’ leadership candidates.

The last time party members were asked to choose between a ‘centrist’ and ‘left’ candidate they opted, very marginally, for the former – Owen Smith was backed by 6,856 party members in Scotland, whilst 6,042 supported Corbyn. A little closer to home, the leadership election in 2014 saw veteran Labour MP Jim Murphy comfortably defeat left-winger Neil Findlay MSP.

So, what has changed?

Although the dust is still settling on this result, it seems clear that Corbyn’s relative success earlier in the year has persuaded at least some Labour members that a leader with left wing credentials can make electoral gains.

Whether Leonard can replicate this in Scotland is unclear. In every leadership election since 2007 (and there have been five by my count!) the Scottish Labour Leader vacancy is invariably described by pundits as the least desirable position in Scottish politics. And this time the position is perhaps more challenging than ever.

Leonard now has the unenviable task of positioning Scottish Labour as the UK negotiates its exit from the EU. No option seems appealing – adopt Corbyn’s coyness and allow the SNP free rein to use Brexit to angle for #indyref2; campaign for a softer exit (or no exit at all) and run the risk of playing into the SNP’s constitutional mischief making and/or causing a rift with a UK Labour which is unwilling to alienate Brexit voters in its North of Engalnd heartlands; or back Brexit and go against the majority of Scots who voted remain.

Then there’s the proper politics – namely, taxation and public spending. Will Leonard’s clearer left-wing stance entice Labour-turned-SNP voters back to the party? Certainly those who have spotted Corbyn’s popularity north of the border hope so, but they perhaps underestimate how successful the SNP has been in making the constitution the principle issue for many people when choosing who to support at Holyrood.

Leonard certainly comes without the #indyref baggage of the longer serving Labour parliamentarians, including Anas, but it will take a campaign of Corbynista-esque fervour to reset the Scottish political landscape. After a decade in power there is a definite sense that the SNP government’s Labour-light, managerial style of politics has had its day, so there is hope.

But as a relative newcomer – he is part of the 2016 Scottish Parliament intake – Leonard’s main challenge, in the short term at least, will be to establish himself as a recognisable figure to the average Scottish voter (and to distinguish himself from the not-dissimilar looking Corbyn). With so much politics competing for the news agenda at the moment, this in itself is no small task.

Far right and far left activists clash in Glasgow

Self described Anti-Communist and Anti-Capitalist organisation Last Line Resistance took to the streets of Glasgow last night. 

But only a handful of people turned out for their March Against Marxism rally.

Last Line Resistance is a new organisation thought to have close links to Scottish Dawn, a far right activist group recently prescribed as a terrorist organisation by the UK government.

The number of active Last Line Resistance members is unclear, although a tweet from the organization sent prior to yesterday’s march showed four members of their “Glasgow branch” in George Square.

Around a hundred Anti-Fascist Action (Antifa) and Communist activists staged a counter demonstration timed to coincide with the 6pm March Against Marxism. Many dressed in black, covered their faces and carried Communist, Antifa and Catalan flags.

At one point left wing activists confronted two suspected far right activists, who were escorted from the area by police.