​Social media giants should help fund mental health care - Alex Cole-Hamilton

​In September 2022, someone I care about very much came forward to seek help from Scotland’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. It was incredibly brave of them because at the time they were really struggling. More than 14 months on and they still haven’t been seen.

​The grim reality is that their story isn’t even newsworthy. They are among thousands upon thousands of teenagers grappling with the long shadow of lockdown and waiting significant chunks of their childhood in a kind of limbo for health and support.

Government ministers will tell you that mental and physical health are treated equally but services are not getting better.

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Years ago the government committed to ensuring that every GP surgery had access to mental health workers.

Yet a survey of GPs published by Public Health Scotland last week revealed that just 14% believed their practice had sufficient access to mental health practitioners. This falls to 9% in the areas of highest deprivation. That's despite 1 in 4 of those who visit their doctor having an underlying mental health issue. Talk is cheap.

My party worked so hard to persuade the government of the importance of putting mental health practitioners into surgeries in every corner of Scotland. GPs were promised new colleagues to help lessen the load and improve the mental health care available.

But, with Humza Yousaf as Health Secretary, the government actually hit pause on its pledge to train and hire more staff. They even cut £50 million from mental health last winter. We are going backwards.

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Indeed half of parents say their child has experienced mental ill health. I’m worried about how much social media is a part of this in particular.

As a political leader I’ve seen my fair share of the dark side of social media, of online abuse. But for young people it can feel like there is no escape.

One survey found 97% of children 12 and up are now on social media for hours each day. When they are telling us it is doing them harm, and they are, we should listen.

Young people can be captured by their online presence. It’s a thread that runs through so many of the reasons why they present to services with things like anxiety and depression.

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Social media companies have to take a share of the responsibility for this. While clamping down on harmful content and algorithms is essential, Liberal Democrats also believe they should also be made to pay for how we tackle the harms their content has caused.

The Digital Services Tax is paid by the biggest social media sites, and Liberal Democrats would treble that tax to raise £1.5 billion in the UK next year alone. That could unlock up to £150 million for the Scottish budget, the sort of money would allow us to boost the number of mental health professionals in schools and in doctor’s surgeries across the country.

The mental health crisis in Scotland is widely understood, but so too is the solution. It comes down to money and staff. Forcing social media companies to pay up is a route to both.

Alex Cole-Hamilton, MSP for Edinburgh Western

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