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Young People Face "Postcode Lottery" In Child And Adolescent Mental Health Care

Average trust waits for a first CAMHS appointment vary between 10 days and three years (Alamy)

4 min read

Young people are waiting up to four years for critical help as waiting lists spiral out of control, as revealed by an exclusive investigation by The House magazine.

The House sent FOI requests to 70 UK trusts and boards providing children and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS), which revealed evidence of a "postcode lottery" where services massively vary between regions and trusts.

Average trust waits for a first appointment vary between 10 days and three years and spending per child is four times higher in some parts of the country than others – with children in England faring worse than their counterparts around the UK.

Average community CAMHS waiting lists in February have rocketed by two-thirds in two years in England, meaning children are waiting on average 21 weeks for a first appointment. Across the UK they are up by 53 per cent and the wait is 16 weeks.  

Former Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield told The House that the pandemic worsened the crisis faced by CAMHS.

“Even if young people attempt suicide, they are not automatically offered support,” she said.

“First there is a judgement of whether they actually meant it. For children in such pain to be told they are not believed is devastating and damaging but this is a reflection of the crisis in children and young people’s mental health services.

"The threshold is so high because the system is buckling. It was struggling pre-Covid but the pandemic poured rocket fuel on it.”



Baroness Claire Tyler, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for mental health in the Lords, said: “[The House’s] figures demonstrate so clearly that what is needed is a root and branch reform of children’s mental health services so that it is easier to get earlier intervention.

"This really is a big eye-opener to me. I knew there were regional variations but the extent of it has left me quite shocked. They are absolutely unacceptable.

“We need this kind of data to be tracked officially to throw a spotlight on services, enabling transparency and visibility to see where things are going very wrong.”

Labour's shadow mental health minister Dr Rosena Allin-Khan said: “The postcode lottery in children’s mental health services is scandalous – the government is failing our children.

“The recent scrapping of the cross-government 10-year mental health plan has been a huge setback for the future provision of children’s mental health services.”

Data from the Office for National Statistics, analysed by YoungMinds, found that suicide rates among under-18s rose by a third from 2020 to 2021 after years of steady falls, with only a third of those young people in touch with mental health services.

Olly Parker, YoungMinds’ head of external affairs, said: “[The House’s] figures show the system is in total shutdown yet there is no clear government plan to rescue it. 

“In the meantime, young people are self-harming and attempting suicide as they wait months and even years for help after being referred by doctors. This is not children saying, ‘I’m unhappy.’ They are ill, they are desperate and they need urgent help.

"We hear about parents sleeping on their children’s floors to keep them safe, children out of education for months and years while they wait for help. It is not an exaggeration to say it is life and death. How can we as a society allow this?”



The government has committed to a standardised target of four weeks for a first appointment, but but not set out how trusts can achieve this, with only 12 per cent of the trusts who provided data meeting that target so far.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We’re determined to do everything we can to support children and young people with their mental health, no matter their background or location.

“Support in school is vital and that’s why we are increasing the number of school mental health teams to almost 400 by April 2023, providing support to three million children and young people.

“We’re also working closely with NHS England to introduce new access and waiting time standards for mental health services, ensuring quicker access to high-quality care across the country.”

For support with any of the issues raised in this article, go to or call the Samaritans on 116123.

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