Not enough mental health services to go round for young people

nspccOver 100,000 children referred to local mental health services in England have been rejected for treatment in the last two years. Figures requested from NHS Trusts by the NSPCC, released today, show that an average of 150 referrals a day are turned away from NHS children’s mental health services, despite Childline reporting record numbers of calls. From a total of 652,023 cases referred to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS), 109,613 children were turned away. The NSPCC has called on Government to focus on early intervention to reduce numbers who reach crisis point.

These figures are very concerning, and reflect the chronic levels of underfunding which mental health services, and in particular child and adolescent mental health services, have experienced. With ever-shrinking and unprotected budgets for child and adolescent mental health and social care, services are sometimes pushed to raise the threshold for access higher in order to prioritise high-risk and crisis cases. It is mad that a system there to help young people should have to wait until they are in crisis before it can.

Not every assessment should necessarily result in access to a service – some referrals aren’t appropriate and some young people could be better helped in other ways, but these sky-high numbers suggest that the need for mental health services for young people is much greater than the provision. In addition the care received in different geographical areas of England differs, so waiting lists and access to services depends on where you live. This data is only for England but we know other areas of the UK and Ireland are also affected by stretched services, with Wales in particular suffering from having very little access to evidence-based talking therapies for children and adults.

It’s important these figures don’t become yet another stick to bash the NHS with.The data shows a greater need than there is capacity for, which is different from showing that the services themselves aren’t good. There is simply not enough service to go round, which is not OK.

What might help? Several things:

    • Ring-fence current funding and increase it. There has been a huge amount of rhetoric about parity of esteem between mental health and physical health problems, but until there is parity of funding it is hard to believe this. Child and adolescent mental health funding in particular has had such a chronic lack of under-funding for so long that it needs even more growth in funding to be able to provide the care that young people want and that professionals want to be able to give.
    • Getting in there early. Providing good services early on before mental health problems become severe and enduring is crucial. This doesn’t mean cutting back on specialist services – we still need them – but it does mean also making sure there is enough funding for early intervention to try to nip problems in the bud and also enough funding for the education and social care supports that need to go alongside.
    • As well as early intervention we can think about prevention: putting more effort in even earlier, perhaps in school settings, to help young people understand and negotiate powerful emotions and have the emotional literacy they need to talk about their feelings, might help head off some of these problems before they begin.
  • Thinking about why these young people are so distressed. The rise in numbers of reported mental health problems in children may be partly to do with increased knowledge of mental health issues and increased ability to speak up, but it’s also likely to have much to do with the huge pressures young people are under. There are more exams than ever before, there are new social media pressures to encounter, it’s really hard to be a young person in our society today and we should be addressing that.

50% of adult mental health problems are already present at the age 14. If we could help young people avoid this we might set them off on a different trajectory for their adult lives.

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