Number of children in emotional distress ‘increasing exponentially’, MSPs told

The number of children suffering from emotional distress is "increasing exponentially", the chair of specialist taskforce reviewing mental health care for youngsters has warned.

Dame Denise Coia said that combined with an increase in disorders such as autism and ADHD had resulted in a "massive increase" in referrals to Child and Adolscent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).

While she said there had been no increase in the incidence of serious mental illness, she spoke about the number of youngsters who were left suffering because of anxiety and depression, bullying or issues with their body image.

Dame Denise, who chairs a taskforce on children and young people's mental health that was jointly set up by the Scottish Government and the council body Cosla, said there was "complete consensus" the "problems with mental health in Scotland with children and young people are increasing exponentially".

She added: "That's not related to the incidence or prevalence of serious mental illness, that is unchanged.

"The rise is in the emotional distress in young people at schools, so issues around bullying, body image, depression, anxiety, is really on the increased and has massively changed."

She also spoke out about "serious issues" relating to how those with neurodevleopmental disorders, such as autism, Asperger's and ADHD are dealt with – saying youngsters with these conditions were sometimes treated by CAHMS but in some places could be treated by paediatric services.

She said: "These two areas have grown significantly and that has accounted for the massive increase in referrals."

Dame Denise was questioned on the issue by MSPs on Holyrood's Audit Committee in the wake of a report by public spending watchdogs, which found specialist mental health services for young people were "complex and fragmented", warning the system was under "significant pressure" due to a big increase in demand.

NHS Scotland chief executive Paul Gray told the committee there had a been a 69% increase in CAMHS provision since 2007.

And in her programme for government this year, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced an extra £250 million spending to improve mental health care – with this including a £60 million pledge to recruit hundreds of school nurses along with counsellors for secondary schools, colleges and universities.

But Dame Denise stressed the importance of authorities providing equal services for young people, with a third of Scotland's population under the age of 24.

"Providers have to make sure that they are giving equal priority to child and adolescent services and that is what we are not seeing going round the country," she told the committee.

"I think we live in an age of austerity, and we're all grown ups in the age of austerity and we know that actually we have to all meet our commitments to try to live within our means.

"I think the issue for me is as we attempt to live within our means I think if the population, a third of them are under the age of 24, we actually have to make sure living within our means gives them a fair percentage of the resource we have... that we don't prioritise other areas at the expense of children and young people."

Dame Denise added: "The Government is completely committed to CAMHS, I think there is cross party commitment to child and adolescent mental health.

"The policy is great, the commitment from the people on the ground delivering the service is great, but actually when the resource goes out – and children are a third of the population of Scotland up to the age of 24 – the resource has to be targeted at that group of individuals.

"And at the moment we have to really highlight the issue that mental health services, particularly child and adolescent mental health services, while everyone is taking cuts they are taking bigger cuts proportionately than everyone else."