Dr Alex George: ‘Young people face a mental health emergency… we must act now’

Dr George, who is also an emergency doctor and TV star, warns the country is in an “emergency situation for the under 25s” and is calling for better early intervention to “prevent problems becoming lifelong”. He will meet with health and education ministers and children’s charity bosses next month in a bid to set up the vital national network.

The impact of Covid-19 ‑ with its restrictions on freedom and school closures ‑ has made mental health issues among young people far worse, says Dr George.

He said “1.5 million [young people] will have new or worsening mental health because of the pandemic” ‑ enough people to fill “18 Wembley stadiums”.

While 2,000 children are referred to mental health services each day, he said access is a postcode lottery, with some waiting two years for a referral.

Dr George, who works at University Hospital Lewisham in London, experienced the crisis first hand when his brother Llyr, 19 ‑ who had been struggling with anxiety during lockdown ‑ took his own life in July last year.

Alex met with PM Boris Johnson in February this year.

Backed by leading charities including YoungMinds, Dr George is calling on the Government to fund a network of early support hubs in every community so those aged 11 to 25 have somewhere to go when they first start to struggle with their mental health, or have practical problems that could damage their mental health. 

For this year’s BBC Children In Need appeal he fronted a powerful BBC documentary following young people across the UK who are living with mental health issues.

He explained: “We’re in a major crisis. It is a desperate situation .

“We have a huge increase in people with the severest problems. Eating disorders have risen to extraordinary levels. 

We have 2,000 children a day referred to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).

“The Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition estimates 1.5 million will have new or worsening mental health because of the pandemic.

“The lockdown tipped people into anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm and other problems.

“They were in and out of school, there was massive uncertainty, they didn’t know whether they were doing their exams or not.

“And at the same time they were spending a huge amount of time on social media.

“When you look at risk factors we know a big life change is one ‑ and lockdown and the pandemic were definitely a big change.

“Extensive time on social media could also impact on a persons view of their body image. All these things may have triggered this explosion in mental health problems. It certainly affected me.

“I’ve always had a level of anxiety but lockdown made it much worse. I’m now taking sertraline (an antidepressant) and also have therapy.

“We are in an “emergency situation for under 25s. We know early intervention can “prevent problems becoming lifelong”.

“This is why I’m so keen we roll out these hubs.

“If you look at cost-benefit analysis they are vastly cheaper than mental health services. While we need to invest in CAMHS, they are not designed for early intervention which tends to be picked up by charities or GPs.

“Some children are waiting two years for a referral to CAMHS. It baffles me. Is there anything in life you would wait two years for?

“These children are often very ill, self-harming, and we know the likelihood is their condition will get worse.”

Dr Alex adds: “In the next few weeks we will set up a round table with a coalition of charities, clinicians, education and health ministers and No.10 advisers.”

One successful project is operating in Cardigan, West Wales, which is funded by a charity and local businesses. 

Dr George said: “We have a good example ‑ Area 43 in Wales ‑ which is a cafe where anyone under 25 can drop in.

“The youth workers are friendly and get to know the young people and their issues.

“They can then refer them to relevant services ‑ work-related, sexual health, mental health or something else. 

“These youth workers are trained to spot problems and to identify people who may be at risk. They are far less costly than psychiatrists.

“One in four people are turned away from CAMHS.

“The waiting time is a postcode lottery and this is totally unfair.

“The hubs would take the pressure off and free up CAMHS for those who most need it.

“CAMHS is designed for the five percent with severe needs, not the 95 percent with emerging needs.”

Dr Alex George: Our Young mental health crisis, is available on BBC iPlayer.

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