A postcode lottery
Campaigners have called for urgent and radical reform of NHS children’s mental health services, after an investigation by this magazine has found desperate young people are waiting up to four years for critical help as waiting lists spiral out of control. We sent FOI requests to 70 UK trusts and boards providing children and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS).
Our research produced evidence of a scandalous postcode lottery, with spending per child four times higher in some parts of the country than others, and average trust waits for a first appointment varying between 10 days and three years.
“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.”
Children in England fare worse than their counterparts around the UK. Our research found 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, dropping to just three weeks in Wales.
The crisis means consultants and others are making potential life-or-death decisions about young people’s lives every day. Trusts turned away or redirected almost a quarter of a million children without treatment last year as they were forced to raise thresholds to manage their burgeoning post-pandemic caseloads.
Data from the Office for National Statistics, analysed by YoungMinds, has found that suicide rates among under-18s rose by a third from 2020 to 2021 after years of steady falls. Just a third of those young people were in touch with mental health services.
Olly Parker, the charity’s 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?”
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.”
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.”