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Damage to childrens mental health will ‘last for years’

Children’s mental health services do not meet the needs of hundreds of thousands of children, a report by the children’s commissioner has revealed. 

The annual report on the state of children’s mental health services in England found that, while there has been an expansion of children’s mental health services over the past four years, such was the poor starting point that services are still nowhere near meeting the needs of many hundreds of thousands of children.

The children’s commissioner argued that this is because of a lack of ambition in improving children’s mental health services, despite numerous government pledges.

The data in the report largely covered the period up to end of March 2020, showing a system without the necessary capacity or flexibility to respond to the pandemic, which has been such a seismic event in the lives of children.

The major disruption to two years of education, alongside the limited opportunities to see friends and wider families, to play and enjoy activities and the worry about the impact of Covid-19 on their families, will have taken a heavy toll on some children.

The commissioner said we do not know how far this spike will have long term consequences on children’s mental health, nor do we know the impact of further lockdowns, but it is highly likely that the level of underlying mental health problems will remain significantly higher as a result of the pandemic. There has already been a spike in referrals to NHS services during Autumn 2020.

The report found that, even before this crisis, children’s mental health services were far from meeting the existing level of need. In the year before the pandemic, referrals to children’s mental health services increased by 35% while the number of children accessing treatment increased by just 4%.

A study, undertaken by the NHS in July 2020, found that clinically significant mental health conditions amongst children had risen by 50% compared to three years earlier.

A staggering one in six children now have a probable mental health condition

The commissioner said the biggest constraint on improvements appears to be spending decisions made locally and nationally.

On average, local CCG areas spend less than 1% of their overall budget on children’s mental health and 14 times more on adult mental health services than on services for children. However, some local areas are spending considerably more, and have, accordingly much better mental health services.

There is also a postcode lottery around what local areas spend, waiting times for treatment, access to treatment and how many children are referred to services and go on to receive support. According to the report, 70 local areas in England close 30% or more of their cases before children access support.

Anne Longfield, children’s commissioner for England, said: ‘Even before the Covid-19 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.

‘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.’

The children’s commissioner is calling for the government to raise its ambition significantly to deliver a wholesale change in the way we provide children’s mental health services.

She also warns that the government’s current plan to roll out NHS-led counselling in schools to 20-25% of areas by 2023 is not ambitious enough, particularly following the Covid pandemic, and repeats her call for an NHS-funded counsellor for every school as quickly as possible.

Responding to the report, cllr Judith Blake, chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said:

‘The pandemic has exacerbated existing mental health problems, particularly for children living in families with lower incomes and whose parents may be experiencing financial difficulties.

‘Local councils have a vital role in helping children have mentally healthy childhoods and mental health needs to be at the heart of a holistic approach to overall health and wellbeing.

‘Supporting children early on to reduce the need for clinical interventions means more can receive help when they need it, rather than waiting until they are unwell.

‘It is vital that effective and evidence-based mental health and wellbeing services and statutory mental health services for children are able to meet existing, new and unmet demand that has built up during the pandemic.’

Photo Credit – Pixabay

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