Chronic shortages of treatment facilities and trained psychiatrists to care for young people who self-harm are leaving many vulnerable children and teenagers at risk, experts warn today.

Chronic shortages of treatment facilities and trained psychiatrists to care for young people who self-harm are leaving many vulnerable children and teenagers at risk, experts warn today.

Some of the most damaged people - in their teens and early twenties - are being left "in limbo" because they are deemed too old for adolescent mental health services and too young for adult psychiatric units. Doctors and charities called for a huge increase in funding to tackle the growing epidemic of self-harm in Britain. The calls came as the Government's drugs watchdog issued the first guidelines on treating people who self-harm.

A study by the Mental Health Foundation found that a third of under-18s who needed in-patient psychiatric treatment were inappropriately admitted to adult wards rather than a specialist young people's unit. There are just 900 specialist in-patient beds across England and Wales for young people - yet more than 25,000 teenagers a year are admitted to hospital after self-harming.

Dr Andrew McCulloch, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, said: "This is a serious problem. Some parents have described it as a black hole their child falls into when they try to access help. Mental health has always been the Cinderella service but adolescent mental health is the Cinderella service of the Cinderella service."

He added: "Adult psychiatric beds are totally inappropriate for children and teenagers, and specialist places for children are few and far between. Adolescence is when problems often manifest themselves - if they are left untreated until they are adults, they may develop serious dysfunctional behaviour."

Experts said that children as young as seven were starting to self-harm, yet very little research had been conducted into how they should be treated. The Mental Health Foundation is shortly to publish the results of a two-year investigation into self-harm among young people and the provision of care for them.

The Government's drugs and therapy assessment body, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice), has released new treatment guidelines for people who self-harm in response to growing concerns about the scale of the problem. As revealed in The Independent yesterday, more than 170,000 people a year attend hospital A&E departments after deliberately hurting themselves.

The new Nice guidelines stress that self-harm patients "should be treated with the same care, respect and privacy as any patient and that healthcare professionals should take into account the distress associated with self-harm". Nice also recommended that all self-harm patients should be offered psychological assessment from the moment they come into contact with GPs or hospital casualty departments.

Charities and support groups welcomed the guidelines but said more funding was needed for specialist psychiatrists and treatment units for people who self-harm. Marjorie Wallace, the chief executive of the mental health charity Sane, said: "One of the problems is that the reforms in mental health services mean that people who self-harm fall to the bottom of the queue for treatment.

"Because they are not seen as a risk to the public and other people, they are not deemed as in high need of secure psychiatric treatment. These are people who are sometimes begging to be given a place in a unit where their razors will be taken away from them and they can be helped, and yet they are being denied that help."

A spokesman for the Department of Health said an extra £17m had been allocated to improving treatment for mental health patients. Louis Appleby, the Government's mental health tsar, said: "We commissioned this Nice guidance to help provide the humane treatment and careful assessment which patients who self-harm deserve. Self-harm has been a common problem for the NHS for years and this is one of our top clinical guidance priorities.

"People who harm themselves are one of the key high-risk groups identified in our National Suicide Prevention Strategy." On the internet, many youngsters are sharing their opinions and stories about self-harm. On one site, a teenager says: "I don't think it's wrong to do it [self-harm]. People don't think it's wrong if you go for a swim or whatever else to vent your emotions, feelings, anger so why should self-harm be wrong?"

* For information and help on self-harm, please contact the National Self Harm Network on www.nshn.co.uk

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