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Lives depend on ending the 'chronic' underinvestment in children and young people's mental health services

3 min read

Ahead of her Oral Question in the House of Lords today on access to treatment in Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services, Baroness Tyler writes about the topic for PoliticsHome.

Last week, Action for Children reported that 1 in 3 children and young people suffer from mental health problems. This is a significant increase from the 1 in 10 found to be suffering in 2004. Yet, while demand for children’s mental health services has skyrocketed, access to treatment trails far behind.

Of children and young people affected, only a quarter can access the help they need from the NHS. As referrals increase, far too many are prevented from accessing mental health services because they were not yet considered ill enough. Shockingly, these rejections have included people who experienced abuse and have shown signs of self-harm. When young people are finally taken seriously, too often they are added to long waiting lists or sent out of area (sometimes hundreds of miles away) for care – both of which can exacerbate their conditions. To make matters worse, a quarter of cash strapped local authorities have had to cut services for young people’s mental health, including community based early intervention, school based programmes and counselling for the particularly vulnerable. Needless to say, this is entirely counter-productive – we will only get a grip on the children’s mental health crisis if we prioritise early intervention and prevention.

The Government’s Five Year Forward View for Mental Health aims to have 35% of children accessing care they need by 2020. This is clearly far too low and would never be tolerated for a physical health condition: we cannot accept a situation where 65% of young people are unable to access to the care they need. But simply raising targets is not enough. Children and young people’s mental health services have suffered from many years of chronic under investment both financially and in terms of workforce development.

The National Audit office reported that the Government’s pledge to boost youth mental health funding by £1.4bn was based on the outdated 2004 under-estimate of demand, which would result in ‘significant unmet need’. Moreover, the NAO highlight that the government doesn’t have the data or tools to monitor sufficiently progress in access. Staff are already under too much pressure, as 1 in 10 posts across specialist mental health services remain vacant. We must do more to recruit and retain mental health staff and think seriously about job design.

Particularly alarming is the inadequate, and in some areas non-existent, provision of crisis care for children and young people. The number of children attending A&E for mental health has doubled in the last 8 years. This was brought into sharp relief by the BBC’s Panorama programme ‘Kids in Crisis’ which catalogued harrowing examples of young people who were self-harming or experiencing suicidal thoughts being unable to access urgent support when they need it, often at nights and on weekends. According to Freedom of Information requests, 1.5m young people with mental health problems in England are being let down by not giving them access to the 24/7 support they need.

The APPG on Mental Health has just released a hard hitting progress report on the NHS’s Five Year Forward View for Mental Health. I was delighted to serve on that Inquiry. We found that 24/7 crisis care for adults as well as children was significantly lacking in many areas and recommended a significant expansion of crisis care. The Government, with support from parliamentarians from across the political spectrum, must take this problem seriously and ensure that proper 24/7 crisis care is established for all who needs it. It’s not exaggerating to say that lives depend on it.

Baroness Tyler of Enfield is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.

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Read the most recent article written by Baroness Tyler of Enfield - The Children and Families Act has failed to improve the lives of children and young people