Chasm exists in children’s mental health services, report warns

A “chasm” exists between the mental health care youngsters need and what is available, the Children’s Commissioner for England has warned.

England is still a decade away from offering a decent service to the nation’s children, according to Anne Longfield.

In a new report, she argues that while progress has been made, with extra cash pumped into mental health services for children, significantly more is spent on supporting adults.

The NHS spends, on average, £225 on mental health care for adults, compared to £92 for every child, the report says.

Ms Longfield said: “There has been welcome progress on children’s mental health services over the last couple of years and more progress is promised over the next few years.

“Nevertheless, there is still a chasm between what children need and what is being provided. More children are seeking help for their mental health and the Government need to make sure that help is available.

“We are still a decade away from a decent mental health service for all children.”

The Children’s Commissioner’s annual report on mental health says that in 2018/19 an extra £50 million in real terms was invested in specialist children’s community-based mental health services and an additional 53,000 youngsters started treatment.

But it goes on to say that many youngsters face a postcode lottery in whether they receive treatment, and how long they wait.

On average, youngsters wait 53 days – just under eight weeks – to start treatment, the report found, down slightly from 57 days in 2017/18.

Waiting times are shorter for eating disorders, where a target has been introduced, the report notes.

Overall waiting times for mental health services vary by area, it says.

While 11 clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) – bodies that commission hospital and community NHS services in a particular area – had average waiting times of less than four weeks, 97 had average waiting times of more than eight weeks.

A further 43 CCGs were found to have average waiting times of more than 10 weeks.

Ms Longfield said: “After years of Government announcements on children’s mental health, children’s mental health remains the poor relation of NHS spending, receiving a fraction of the money invested in adults.

“Most areas are still spending less than 1% of their budget on children’s mental health services and the postcode lottery of care means some areas are years ahead of others in improving services.

“It is important to recognise and welcome the real progress that is being made. More children are receiving the help they need and even more will in the future.

“But the Government urgently needs to commit in the next Spending Review to providing help for 100% of children, not just 20%.

“If not, thousands of children with mental health problems will continue to suffer and become adults without getting the help they need.”

Mental Health Minister Nadine Dorries said: “As the Children’s Commissioner highlights, major improvements to children and young people’s mental health care are already well under way, driving forward progress so every child can access the high-quality care they need and deserve.

“Spending on children’s mental health is growing faster than spending overall in the NHS, backed by an extra £2.3 billion investment in mental health per year.

“We’re rolling out dedicated mental health support teams in schools and trialling four-week waiting times in the NHS, so they have quicker access to an increased range of support and treatment when they need it.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), said: “Getting help as early as possible is vital when it comes to mental health, otherwise there’s a risk that a young person’s situation will become a crisis.

“The access to and quality of children’s mental health services across the country must be consistent. All children deserve timely and high-quality support and treatment when they need it; this should not be a postcode lottery.”

NHS Digital figures show that one in eight (12.8%) of five to 19-year-olds in England had at least one mental health issue when assessed in 2017.

These were split into four categories – emotional, behavioural, hyperactivity and other less common disorders.

Barbara Keeley, shadow minister for mental health and social care, said: “We need to double the funding allocated to children’s mental health services.

“Without the needed investment, services will continue to be a postcode lottery and thousands of children will continue to go without vital mental health support.”

Dr Bernadka Dubicka, chairwoman of the child and adolescent faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “The situation for young people’s mental health is stark, and this report highlights the disparity in investment between children and young people’s mental health and adult services.

“What we are seeing is the result of increasing demand, historical underinvestment, and a growing workforce crisis, as illustrated by our census which showed that one in eight consultant posts in child and adolescent psychiatry are unfilled.

“While we are seeing improvements in some areas, such as eating disorders, too many children are still unable to access potentially life-saving treatment when they need it.”

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