Access to children’s mental health services in England ‘nowhere near’ adequate

Only around 1 in 4 children who need mental health services currently have access to the support they need, while just 20% of referred children started treatment within four weeks, report reveals.

A new report from the Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield has concluded that despite some visible progress, access to mental health services for children “is still not adequate.”

The fourth annual report of its kind from the Children’s Commissioner found that the number of children referred for mental health support in the period 2019/2020 had increased by 35% on the previous year, and nearly 60% on 2017/2018.

Conversely, the number of children actually receiving mental health treatments for 2019/2020 was up only 4% on the previous year, said the report.

In addition, children who needed access to mental health services often were found as having to wait months to be seen, with only a fifth of those referred starting treatment within four weeks.

The report also raised concerns over “inadequate” investment from the Government in children’s mental health services, as well as “highly variable” levels of local funding across the country, which have led to a “postcode lottery” over access to necessary support for children.

The Government were also criticised for a perceived “lack of ambition” in improving children’s mental health services over the past four years.

However, some local areas were found to have implemented services that were “above and beyond what central Government has expected of them.”

The report largely covers the period until March 2020 and so does not reveal the full effects of the pandemic on children’s mental health or their access to services over the various lockdowns seen over the past year.

However, the report found a children’s mental health system “without the necessary capacity or flexibility to respond to the pandemic” and warned that future findings may find that lockdowns combined with two years of disruption to education has taken “a heavy toll” on children.

Speaking on the release of the report, Anne Longfield warned of the long-term effects of the pandemic on children’s mental health and urged the Government to introduce a “rocket boost” for services as soon as possible.

“Even before the Covid pandemic, we faced an epidemic of children’s mental health problems in England and a children’s mental health service that, though improving significantly, was still unable to provide the help hundreds of thousands of children required,” said Longfield.

“It is widely accepted that lockdown and school closures have had a detrimental effect on the mental health of many children. Since the NHS study in July 2020 estimating one in six children in England have a probable mental health condition, we have had another long lockdown. Sadly, this will be causing even more damage to many children’s mental wellbeing and putting even greater strains on mental health services, potentially for years to come.

“That is why in the short term it is so important the Government sets out a roadmap that helps schools to reopen over the coming weeks.

“In the longer term, the Government’s ‘building back better’ plans must include a rocket boost in funding for children’s mental health, to expand services and eliminate the postcode lottery. As an absolute minimum, all schools should be provided with an NHS-funded counsellor, either in school or online.

“We have seen how the NHS has risen to the scale of the Covid crisis for adults. We owe children, who are suffering the secondary consequences of the pandemic, a mental health service that provides the help and support they need,” she concluded.

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