As the Labour Assembly Member for Torfaen for the 20 years since devolution began in 1999, I have held various roles within the National Assembly. But my favourite – and the one that gets me up every morning – is being chair of the National Assembly’s Children, Young People and Education Committee.
For me, the emotional and mental health of our children and young people is one of the most important issues – if not the most important issue – for us, as a devolved institution. Ensuring the resilience and mental well-being of the future generations of Wales is a fundamental responsibility for all of us in the Assembly.
My part in that, as chair of the CYPE committee, means putting children and young people at the heart of our policy making. The National Assembly has a great story to tell on its scrutiny of children’s rights after Wales became the first country in the UK to make the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child part of its domestic law when we passed the Rights of Children and Young People (Wales) Measure in 2011.
Even so, we have not always got everything right over the past 20 years and there is more to do. In particular, we face a rising tide of emotional and mental distress among children and young people. When the CYPE committee was taking evidence on how to best improve children and young people’s mental health we heard that in Wales, one in 10 young people will experience a mental health problem and that by the age of 14, half of all mental health problems will have begun.
Figures obtained by the NSPCC at the end of 2016 showed that nearly 1,200 children in Wales were admitted to hospital after harming themselves, a 41% rise over three years. In 2016, there were 16 suicides in the 15-19 age group, the highest rate in five years and second highest in 12 years. In the same year, Childline Cymru recorded a 20% increase in calls relating to suicide.
These figures are deeply concerning and why it is high time we had a step-change of approach in Wales that puts greater emphasis on resilience-building and early intervention – to embed good mental health and coping strategies that will stay with youngsters for the rest of their lives.
I often use the parable of the river to demonstrate what I mean. One night villagers were sitting by their river bank about to eat when one villager noticed a young child floating upside down and drifting down the river. Several villagers jumped to their feet, dived in and tried to rescue the child. It was too late.
A short while later, another young child passed by coughing and screaming as it struggled to stay afloat. This time, the villagers were luckier and the child, although bruised and battered, lived.
This turn of events continued and the frequency with which the villagers had to attempt to rescue babies and children from the river increased. Sometimes they were successful, sometimes they were not.
Soon, all the resources and people power of the village were directed at saving as many children as they could. This activity occupied the villagers constantly and other endeavours they had previously pursued had to be forgotten - but this was accepted, as it was a worthy cause.
One day, two villagers began to walk away from the village heading upstream. They were questioned, Where are you going? We need you here. The villagers replied, We’re going upstream to find out why these children end up in the river.
I think devolution has given us that chance to go upstream and tackle issues in our own way. It is incumbent on us to be ambitious. To make system-wide changes. And to create a country where we do all we can to avoid a situation in which a child’s state of mind deteriorates to the point that he or she contemplates taking his or her own life.
That is why, as an Assembly Member I am in the process of setting up a cross party group on suicide prevention that will meet for the first time in July. I am really delighted in the interest people have shown in becoming involved with the group.
So, as we mark 20 years of devolution I find myself looking ahead rather than backwards to see what more Wales can do in terms of early intervention to protect and promote the mental well-being and resilience of our children. I hope you will join me in that fight.
People will judge devolution by what it delivers for them, their friends and their families. My focus in the last two years of this Assembly is to drive real change in the way we provide emotional and mental health support for children and young people in Wales. It is a test that we will be measured by in the next 20 years, and it is a test we cannot afford to fail.
Lynne Neagle is the Assembly Member for Torfaen.