Children’s mental health support across England is subject to a "postcode lottery", with average waiting times of 40 days for starting treatment, a new report has warned.
The Children’s Commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza described the picture for support across the country as "patchy" and called on the Government to have a "clear-eyed focus on the specific needs of children" when it comes to investment.
Dame Rachel said she had made children's mental health a key pillar of her work, meaning she is "particularly concerned to see such a surge in demand for help". For her report, the Commissioner's office said they had carried out new analysis of children's mental health services and waiting lists in England, showing that there were 1.4 million children estimated to have a mental health disorder in the financial year 2021-22. Of those, less than half (48%) had at least one contact with children and young people's mental health services (CYPMHS) and just over a third (34%) had at least two contacts.
Increase in Waiting Times
The average waiting time between a child being referred to CYPMHS and starting treatment rose from 32 days in 2020-21 to 40 days in 2021-22, and varied between areas with the report noting a 13-day wait in NHS Leicester City up to an 80-day wait in NHS Sunderland. The Commissioner said the percentage of children who had their referrals closed before treatment began had increased for the first time in years, at 32% compared to 24% the previous year and 27% the year before that.
Again, there were variations across the country with the report stating that 5% of referrals in NHS East Sussex were closed without treatment compared to 50% in NHS North Cumbria.
Of the 869 detentions of children under the Mental Health Act in 2021-22, almost three quarters (71%) were of girls.
The report said more children, many of whom have mental health difficulties but are not admitted to hospital, are being deprived of their liberty in other settings. It stated: "These children are hidden from view as they do not appear in any official statistics, but research suggests that over 10 times as many children are being deprived of liberty in this way in 2023 as in 2017-18."
Releasing the report, the Commissioner's office said it showed "a varied picture of mental health services around the country, indicating that a postcode lottery remains in the support available, despite the improvements previously seen in the last 5 years".
The Commissioner's report also said there had been a 47% increase in children referred to CYPMHS, from 498,000 in 2020-21 to 734,000 the following year – but acknowledged the rise was likely due to change in the methodology used to track the numbers.
Dame Rachel said: "It’s clear that mental health support for children across the country is patchy, despite some good progress made by the NHS in the years leading up to the pandemic.
"I want to see Mental Health Support Teams delivered in every school by the end 0f 2025. We need a clear-eyed focus on the specific needs of children in Government mental health investment."
Mental Health Needs of Children 'Increasing Rapidly'
Ollie Steadman, policy and campaigns manager at the charity Mind, said the organisation is not surprised by the report's findings as they know the mental health needs of young people are "increasing rapidly" and added that the cost-of-living crisis is also having an impact on young adults.
He said: "Despite the need for support continuing to rise, young people are still left facing an agonising wait in a system that cannot keep up with demand, and the UK Government’s response so far has just not been good enough.
"There should be no 'postcode lottery' when it comes to support for young people’s mental health. The earlier a young person gets support for their mental health, the more effective that support is likely to be."
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said the report's findings "chime with the experiences of our members" and it is "unfair on staff and pupils for schools to be left to struggle to paper over the cracks left by an unacceptable postcode lottery in early support and mental health treatment in which many children face long waits for treatment or are told their problems are not bad enough to warrant help".
Labour's shadow minister for mental health, Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, said: "After over a decade of Conservative neglect of our NHS, the postcode lottery of access to mental health support is leaving children languishing on long waiting lists, instead of receiving appropriate mental health treatment.
"The next Labour government will prioritise a truly preventative plan for mental health services and will put patient care first."
This article contains information from PA Media