We need stronger political will to protect our kids

MARK SMYTH, Past President of the Psychological Society of Ireland, reflects on the Children’s Rights Alliance’s recent Report Card on the Government
We need stronger political will to protect our kids

THE online world is as much a part of children’s evolving identity as the offline world. Young people are now more digitally skilled than perhaps any other generation, yet having digital skills does not protect them from the inevitable exposure to harmful content that occurs online and is harmful to their mental health.

Cyberbullying, online grooming, extortion and pressure to achieve unrealistic and unsafe body ideals are just some of the risks our children encounter.

The annual Report Card from the Children’s Rights Alliance is an invaluable tool in making sure that as a society we hold the government to account when it comes to their promises to our children. This year, online safety got a ‘C-‘ grade and mental health got one of the lowest grades this year – an ‘E’. While there is clear progress and potential for change in terms of online safety, when it comes to mental health things seem to be going backwards.

Government progress with the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill is a much-needed step in the right direction. We are tantalisingly close to having robust legislation that could ensure that structures will be in place to protect our children and young people online.

A cross-party Oireachtas committee, the #123OnlineSafety campaign and the public have advocated for the provision of a mechanism so that children and their parents can submit complaints and seek justice. The social media companies have lobbied hard against an individual complaints mechanism, instead, arguing for continued self-regulation.

The policy of self-regulation by social media companies has failed, of that, there is no question.

An argument against the concept of an individual complaints mechanism is that the system could be overwhelmed by the volume of complaints. This is a tacit acknowledgement that self-regulation does not work and that widespread harm is already occurring. If social media companies were doing an effective job of self-policing to protect children from harm, then there should be no fears that there will be an inordinate number of complaints.

Providing for an individual complaints mechanism via a dedicated Online Safety Commissioner is the necessary course of action to take if we believe in vindicating children’s rights to interact safely online. The rights of multinational social media companies to self-regulate should never come before the rights of our children to be safe and protected.

The mental health picture is far less encouraging. The Covid-19 pandemic forced the government to take immediate and decisive action in the national interest. Funding was found because it was in the public health interest to do so. Our mental health services have been in an almost permanent state of emergency for decades, but the same political decisiveness and funding have not been forthcoming.

The increased need for an overstretched Child Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), coupled with the impact of the pandemic means that at the end of August last year, 2,384 children and young people were awaiting a first appointment. 

The impact of poor mental health is not just felt by each one of those 2,384 children but also by their families. 

Understandably, there is a focus on the wait time to a first appointment, but we need to move key performance indicators beyond the wait time. A first appointment is only the start of the journey.

As the Maskey report has taught us, children’s experience once they enter CAMHS is as important as how long they have waited. The HSE plans as part of its national audit of CAMHS to seek children and families’ experiences of being in CAMHS.

While welcome, we should not need a crisis to proactively seek the experiences of children and families using a service. Their voices and experiences should be the key metric we measure success against.

If traumatised children enter into an under-resourced system then we can’t expect the outcomes that these children deserve. We don’t need more media soundbites acknowledging what we know - there’s a recruitment and retention crisis in mental health. We know what the problems are, and we have the solutions but not the funding or sense of urgency to rectify this national emergency.

Inpatient CAMHS units need minimum safe staffing levels to provide an effective and safe service, but no such minimum staffing levels exist for community CAMHS - this should be our starting point and could be established with little difficulty.

The Mental Health Commission recommended an end to placing children in adult inpatient units in 2011. 

Eleven years later, why are we still having to highlight how children in crisis deserve better than to be placed in an adult unit?

Government has to set a transparent and identified target date for increasing child inpatient unit capacity over the course of this Government based on projected levels of demand.

One solution is to substantially increase funding for mental health as a portion of the overall health budget, but despite years of similar calls the percentage allocated fell last year. There is only reward and no risk for the government to commit to increasing the mental health budget to 10% of the overall health budget by 2024.

We urgently need to expand capacity in primary care psychology which will, in turn, reduce pressures on CAMHS to ensure that children receive timely help. The success of the national mental health policy, Sharing the Vision will be dependent on the levels of direct investment.

If we can’t commit to providing for the mental health of our children then we need to look hard in the mirror and question what our society has become.

Where is the political will to drive positive change? What are the values that actually mean something to us?

Children are our most valuable resource, protecting their mental health and keeping them safe online should not just be a commitment but a reality that must be realised.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Smyth is Past President of the Psychological Society of Ireland and one of over 130 members of the Children’s Rights Alliance, working together to make Ireland one of the best places in the world to be a child.

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