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Children’s mental health services in England ‘buckling under strain’

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Children’s mental health services are buckling under intense pressure, campaigners warn, in the wake of bleak findings over access to treatment and “unacceptable” waiting times.

Almost a quarter of children were turned away from child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) in England last year, a report by the Education Policy Institute has found, as referrals to specialist care have risen by 26 per cent over five years.

Children's mental health

Children's mental health

Thousands of young people are falling through the gaps as a result, school leaders warn, citing cases of children being taken to A&E to ensure they can access timely support. Now, as it emerges such findings aren’t routinely collected by Government, report authors have called for a more consistent approach when it comes to accountability.

“The Government is specifically transforming services, but there is such a long way to go,” report author Jo Hutchinson told The Yorkshire Post. “The Government doesn’t catalogue these kinds of figures - in terms of its transformation, it’s difficult to see how they will know if it’s succeeding or not.”

The past five years have seen a “substantial” increase in referrals to children’s mental health services, yesterday’s EPI report found, warning that services are facing strain.

At least 55,800 children were refused treatment in 2017/18, it adds, primarily because their conditions were not deemed serious enough despite including those who had self-harmed. Waiting lists for treatment, though improving, were still falling short, it concluded, averaging 60 - days - twice as long as the Government’s new standard outlined in its mental health green paper.

And in further revelations, it found a quarter of local authorities have phased out vital alternative services including school-based mental health services and family counselling.

“Our research finds no significant improvement in access to children’s mental services over the last few years, with a number of treatment gaps evident in a system that is coming under increased pressure from rising referral rates,” report author Whitney Crenna-Jennings concluded.

Anna Cole, of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the report showed a “bleak” picture for vulnerable young people, compounded by cutbacks to local authority services. Schools and teachers are having to support young people in severe distress, she warned, to the extent of taking them to A&E to access timely support.

And Emily Cherry, assistant director of policy for Barnardo’s, said access to early intervention is key to easing the strain on vulnerable young people.

“We are walking into a mental health crisis if we don’t get access to that early support,” she said. “There is a real concern that children, right now, are facing unrelenting pressures in their lives. We are stepping up these problems for young people if we don’t give them access to the support they need.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said it was committed to achieving parity between physical and mental health, backed by funding of £20.5bn per year by 2023/24.

“We are transforming mental health services for children and young people with an additional £1.4bn and are on track to ensure that 70,000 more children a year have access to specialist mental health care by 2020/21. We are improving access to mental health services through schools with a brand new dedicated workforce, as well as piloting a four week waiting time standard in some areas so we can better understand how to reduce waiting times.”