'Decent' mental health service for children is a decade away, warns children’s commissioner

‘There is still a chasm between what children need and what is being provided’

Shaun Lintern
Health Correspondent
Thursday 30 January 2020 08:01
Comments
Anne Longfield has also described a postcode lottery in care
Anne Longfield has also described a postcode lottery in care

The UK is at least a decade away from having a comprehensive mental health service for children, according to the children’s commissioner.

Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, said there was a “chasm” between the services that were available for children and what they actually needed, adding that children’s mental health services were “the poor relation” in terms of NHS funding. Currently adults receive £225 per head while children receive just £92.

Ms Longfield has published her third annual briefing on child mental health.

It reveals that while the NHS has made progress on improving mental health services for children, the current system is far from adequately meeting the needs of thousands of mentally unwell children.

She 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 coming ones.

“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 needs to make sure that help is available. We are still a decade away from a decent mental health service for all children.”

According the report, children are waiting an average of 53 days to enter treatment. However, for those with eating disorders, where the NHS has introduced new waiting times, the waits are shorter with most children seen within four weeks.

The report also reveals a postcode lottery in care across the country. In four areas, Southwark, Croydon, Corby and Lambeth, 90 per cent of children referred for help received treatment.

But in 10 local areas more than half of children referred didn’t receive any treatment. This included Knowsley where two thirds of children referred for treatment had their referral closed.

Out of 195 clinical commissioning groups, which pay for NHS services in each area, 161 increased spending, per child, on mental health services in 2018-19, an increase overall of £50m.

The NHS has made a particular effort with eating disorders, where there has been a 50 per cent increase in children getting treatment since 2016-17.

Despite this, just 3 per cent of youngsters were referred for help last year, around one in four of the children with a diagnosable mental health condition.

Ms Longfield added: “It is still not clear whether national and local government and the NHS is facing up to the scale of problems in children’s mental health services and the devastating impact this has on children.

“The government doesn’t have a plan for a comprehensive service in every area and there is still no commitment to a counsellor in every school, which would make a huge difference.

“After years of government announcements, 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 per cent 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.”

In response to the report, Richard Crellin, policy manager at The Children’s Society, said progress on child mental health services had “been painfully slow and is still not good enough for children who are struggling”.

Tom Madders, from the charity YoungMinds, added: “This concerning research reflects what we hear every day from young people and worried parents – that, in many areas, it remains far too difficult to get mental health support.

“Long waiting times and high thresholds for treatment can have a devastating impact – in some cases, young people start to self-harm, drop out of school or become suicidal before they get the help they need.”

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