BPS urges action on workforce, rising living costs and online safety

Shaoni Bhattacharya reports.

The British Psychological Society has highlighted a number of issues – from psychological workforce resourcing, to the cost of living crisis, and cyber-safety – which it says must be addressed to protect mental health in the UK.

On the second anniversary of the UK’s lockdown for the Covid-19 pandemic on 23 March, the Society demanded urgent action by the UK government on the mental health workforce and funding – with a particular focus on early intervention. This was in response to an analysis that revealed demand for children and young people’s mental health services had jumped by 45 per cent in the two years of the pandemic.

There were 397,147 open referrals to children and young people’s mental health services at the end of December 2021, compared with 261,939 at the end of December 2019, according to a study by the BPS of NHS Digital data.

‘We know that early intervention is critical to improving outcomes for children, young people and their families,’ said Dr Helen Griffiths, chair of the BPS’ Division of Clinical Psychology’s Faculty for Children, Young People, and their Families. ‘These figures lay bare the toll the pandemic has taken on our children and young people’s mental health, with the pressures of missed education and reduced opportunities to socialise with friends and others, both of which play a significant part in development and wellbeing.’

She added: ‘Given that near three-quarters of mental health problems begin to emerge before the age of 25, the focus now must be to build on initiatives such as early intervention hubs and mental health support teams, as well as investing in specialist services.’

The BPS also reiterated its calls to add 10 minutes more play into the school day.

In a separate briefing paper, ‘From poverty to flourishing: Covid perspective’, produced on behalf of the Division of Occupational Psychology by Dr Ritsa-Ventouratos and Dr Andrew Clements, the authors acknowledge ‘that all scientists and leaders are being faced with the biggest challenges of recent times’. ‘At a societal level there is a need to be mindful about reinvesting in good quality and active labour markets, to move with caution on a road that is unfamiliar to all citizens, whilst ensuring that we do all we can to flourish and sustain a healthy nation state,’ the paper concludes. ‘Organisations, too, must invest in the wellbeing of employees. As a fundamental condition, we recommend that such changes always involve fairness and justice at the community, organisational and governmental level.’

The ‘glaring absence’ of measures to address the rising cost of living in the Chancellor’s Spring Statement in March, was also highlighted by the Society. It warned that many vulnerable people and families, including children, could be pushed into poverty.

‘The mental health impacts of this are severe – we know that the stress of raising a family in poverty can have huge ramifications on parents’ and children’s mental health, and that poverty is one of the major risk-factors for the development of mental and physical health problems,’ warned Sarb Bajwa, the BPS’ CEO.

Meanwhile, the Society has warned that the UK’s draft Online Safety Bill leaves online users, particularly children, vulnerable to harm. Though amendments have been made to the Bill, it has not extended the duty of responsibility to protect users from content that is deemed ‘legal but harmful’ to all platforms, said the BPS. Instead only Category One companies – the largest online platforms including the most popular social media sites – are compelled to address content deemed ‘harmful to adults that falls below the threshold of a criminal offence’. The government has said it will clarify what counts as ‘legal but harmful’ content in secondary legislation.

The BPS noted that the government’s failure to place ‘a clear and statutory requirement on platforms to co-operate on cross-platform risks means children will still be vulnerable to harm, for example if child grooming moves across platforms to encrypted messaging and live streaming sites’.

‘It’s encouraging to see the Online Safety Bill progressing, however it is concerning that a number of points raised by the BPS (see tinyurl.com/bpsonlinesafe) that would have strengthened it have not been heeded,’ said Dr Linda Kaye, chair of the BPS’ Cyberpsychology Section.

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