Mind the rhetoric-action gap: Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision

  • Dr Terry Hanley
  • 01 June 2018
  • Posted in: Healthcare, Education

Let’s not beat about the bush, young people’s mental health has become big business. Politicians use it to gain support and organisations benefit from it as a source of lucrative income. It is clearly an issue that has leverage within the realms of today’s policy makers and evokes the wrath of the press if disaster strikes. Unlike the headlines however, which often summarise situations in a single line, children and young people’s mental health is never quite as simple as one might hope. In this post I therefore reflect upon this complexity by considering research that I have been involved in alongside the wise words of two great speakers of their times, Martin Luther King and J.K. Rowling.

“The time is always right to do what is right” - Martin Luther King.

Firstly, I want to reflect upon the sources of ‘evidence’ that guide our decision-making processes. It is increasingly commonplace within the U.K. for economic arguments to take centre stage and to determine ways of working. Such models are pragmatic and understandably account for the distribution of limited funds. The difficulty here however is that such systems lead to compromise, and it is my view that these compromises have become increasingly pressured to the point of perversity. Here is a quote from a recent research project I was involved in (1) from a teacher talking about the situation in a secondary school in Manchester:

“So they’ve decimated the service, but if we wanted a nurse we could buy one. It wouldn’t increase our budget, it would have to come from somewhere else. Educational psychologist we buy in ... again, it’s not changed the headline figure but it is a service that we now buy that historically was available through the local authority. Lollipop lady/man, that’s a service that you now have to buy as a school. The things like, you know, the slashing Children’s Services budgets and the support that’s available, that’s all coming down to school”.

Such decisions put undue pressure on educational professionals and, for those who do not recognise this situation, should act as wake up call to the inequity within the current education and mental health care systems. It is now time ‘to do what is right’!

So to what might ‘right’ look like? Does the recent Green paper, which promised to transform children and young people’s mental health provision, give us hope? The short answer is no. In fact, as the high profile responses to it note, it has the potential to fail a generation. What is actually needed is a resourced system that is accessible and responsive to the needs of young people. How do we know? Because that’s what young people commonly tell us.

“Youth cannot know how age thinks and feels. But old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young” - Albus Dumbledore in J.K. Rowling’s Order of the Phoenix.

As adults, we are the gatekeepers for the support that children and young people can access. Unfortunately there appears to be a gap between the rhetoric that pervades the adult world of politics and the action that it advocates. We see backing for changes in mental health provision at the highest levels but, as indicated above, the suggested response lacks rigour and ignores previous recommendations (such as the idea that all schools should have access to a trained counsellor). In looking at the help seeking behaviour of children and young people it is clear that there is no quick fix and one size will certainly not fit all. For instance, some will seek support in schools (2), other in their communities, and others online (3). Further, some will benefit from community based interventions or group work in schools, whilst other will need specialist support. Such a support system is complex, requires leadership that is capable of joined up thinking, and professionals that are appropriately trained and supported to engage in the potent world of emotionally charged labour.

It’s time to remember what it was like to be young and do the right thing by creating a service fit for the next generation of our country. It’s time to bridge the rhetoric-action gap.


  1. Hanley T, Winter LA, Burrell K. Supporting Emotional Wellbeing in Schools in the Context of Austerity. Manchester: Manchester Institute of Education; 2017.
  2. Hanley T, Noble J, Toor N. Policy, policy research on school-based counseling in United Kingdom. In: Carey J, Harris B, Lee SM, Mushaandja J, editors. International Handbook for Policy Research in School-Based Counseling. Switzerland: Springer; 2017.
  3. Hanley T, Ersahin Z, Sefi A, Hebron J. Comparing Online and Face-to-Face Student Counselling: What Therapeutic Goals Are Identified and What Are the Implications for Educational Providers? J Psychol Couns Sch. 2016;120(3):1–18.
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About Dr Terry Hanley

Dr Terry Hanley (CPsychol, AFBPsS) is the Programme Director for the Doctorate in Counselling Psychology at the University of Manchester. He is one of the editors of The Sage Handbook of Counselling and Psychotherapy (4th ed) (Sage, 2017) and co-author of Introducing Counselling and Psychotherapy Research (Sage, 2013).  Terry’s research interests h…