Young people who self-harm are suffering alone and reaching crisis point before being offered help, according to a report calling for the Government to prioritise early intervention in England.
Vital support is being offered too late, with barriers to accessing help exacerbated by the coronavirus outbreak, said the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Suicide and Self-Harm Prevention.
Experts told the cross-party group of MPs and peers they are concerned about the system’s ability to cope with demand following the pandemic.
The APPG’s inquiry, supported by the Samaritans, heard evidence of young people being “bounced” from one service to another while in crisis.
Longer waiting lists, higher thresholds and stigma are all affecting access, while young people from ethnic minority backgrounds, those who identify as LGBT, or are autistic, particularly struggle to access support, it said.
The APPG is calling for the system to be “flipped on its head” so that young people get support long before their problems escalate.
Members want the Government to fund an early intervention system, with initiatives delivered by youth clubs and third sector specialist support groups.
And the Government should back the creation of free, community-based mental health services to provide immediate support in a non-clinical setting, the report said.
To achieve this shift from crisis intervention, planned investment in NHS mental health support for young people should be “increased and brought forward more quickly than currently planned”.
This is particularly important, given an “anticipated backlog of referrals owing to the Covid-19 lockdown”, the APPG said.
Labour MP Liz Twist, and APPG chairwoman, said: “We have heard repeatedly of the urgent need to move towards a preventative model for dealing with self-harm that supports young people to help them to manage their emotions before they reach a crisis.
“As well as benefiting our stretched health system, such a shift would support a simple principle: no child, teenager or young person should ever suffer alone.”
The APPG said the importance of prevention has been increasingly recognised at a national level, but policy is not being translated into action improving the experiences of young people.
It said a common theme in its inquiry was how self-harm is used by many young people as a coping mechanism to deal with emotional trauma.
But it heard how a focus on self-harming behaviour, rather than the underlying distress, can make young people feel they are only being listened to when they are self-harming.
One young person, who resorted to an attempt on his life to get the help he was looking for, said: “At a young age, you have to do something drastic to get support.”
A practitioner at the children’s charity Barnardo’s said: “Access to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) has become almost impossible, unless a child is in crisis.
“Even young people who have made suicide attempts… are seen in hospital and then discharged with no further follow up.”
Jess, who was referred to CAMHS 16 times while self-harming before getting support, told the inquiry: “I wouldn’t have cost the NHS so much if I was helped earlier.
“I was in a much better place when I presented than when I was admitted.”
The inquiry heard evidence from one consultant psychiatrist of fewer young people attending A&E after self-harming, likely due to not wanting to overburden services during the coronavirus outbreak.
Persistent stigma also acts as a barrier to seeking help, with some respondents relaying accounts of being labelled by health professionals as “time wasters” or “attention seekers”.
In some cases, medical professionals reportedly withheld anaesthetic while attending to wounds caused by self-harm.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said: “Early intervention in mental health issues for children and young people is vital and services have continued to work around the clock during this unprecedented pandemic.
“We have given over £10m to voluntary and community sector organisations to help them support individuals experiencing poor mental health and we have also published guidance for parents and carers to help them spot the signs of mental illness early.”