2 Nov 2015

Children with serious mental health problems are being forced to wait up to five months to get help as services struggle to cope with rising demand, a report by The Children’s Society reveals today.

The report, Access Denied – A Teenager’s Pathway through the Mental Health System, based on Freedom of Information responses from mental health trusts across England, finds that children and young people are made to wait, on average, 66 days for an initial assessment by specialist mental health services.

But in some areas waits for conditions including severe depression and anxiety, self-harm, eating disorders and psychosis, stretch to 140 days – almost five months. By contrast, there are six-week targets in place for many physical health conditions.

Although waits for children aged 10-17 are improving in some areas, and have improved slightly overall in the past year, almost a third (31%) of providers reported an increase in waiting times for so-called Tier 3 Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) between 2013/14 and 2014/15.

Delays may be associated with increases in young people seeking help. Referral rates to specialist mental health services for children and young people rose by more than 40% between 2003 and 2010, research by Durham University found. In the last year around 200,000 children have been referred for specialist support.

The Government has recently pledged to introduce new access and waiting time standards for young people dealing with eating disorders by April 2016 – but not for other mental health problems, including those related to abuse or neglect.

The Children’s Society’s report also reveals that one third of children and teenagers referred to specialist services (31%) are failing to access specialist help altogether – 16% are being passed on to a lower-level service while 15% (equivalent to 30,000 young people across the country) are being turned away without getting any other support.

It means that many young people may never have their needs addressed and are likely to reach crisis point. 

Even children deemed to be vulnerable following experience of abuse, exploitation, neglect, violence or drugs problems are struggling to get help, with more than one in four (28%) young people referred being rejected or re-directed to lower-level services following an initial assessment.

One of the reasons why significant numbers of young people are being denied specialist support is the very high thresholds for accessing mental health services in particular areas, the report finds.

Worryingly, some trusts are turning away vulnerable young people who need to access mental health services as a result of abuse or neglect. The Children’s Society is deeply concerned that trusts are failing to fulfil their duty to meet the health needs of young people and to protect them from harm.

The rigidity of the referral system also means that organisations like The Children’s Society, which delivers extensive and sometimes long-term support to young people experiencing serious mental health problems, are often not allowed to refer young people to specialist mental health services, because referrals have to come from GPs or local authority children’s services. In this way young people may miss out.

The Children’s Society is calling for new standards on access and waiting times for all mental health conditions. It is also calling on the Department of Health to set out clearly, in national statutory guidance, the rights of young people to receive different levels of support for various conditions, as well as stating which cases should be fast-tracked, to tackle the postcode lottery of treatment.

Part of the £1.25bn recently committed to Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) must be ring-fenced for investment by local areas in early intervention and specialist services, including targeted support for vulnerable older teenagers and victims of child sexual exploitation, who are too often overlooked.

Matthew Reed, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society, said: “Too many young people are struggling to access the support they need to overcome mental health problems.

“Children who are referred to specialist services for help with serious mental health conditions often need urgent support to prevent a problem from becoming a crisis. What they are getting at the moment, too often, is rejection, confusion and delay.

“Access to mental health support for even the most vulnerable teenagers – including victims of sexual exploitation – is patchy, in part because of a lack of clear national guidance on how they should be helped.

“This needs to change and we urge Government and health trusts to work together, alongside charities like ours on the frontline, to do more to help young people in their time of need.”

Psychologist Linda Papadopoulos said: “Young people need help at the right time to stop mental health problems worsening and continuing into adulthood. In the most extreme cases, not getting help early enough can lead to children taking their own lives. The fact young people are being forced to wait months for support, and are often being turned away completely, shows just how urgently action is needed.”

Media enquiries

For more information or an interview, please call The Children’s Society media team on 020 7841 4422, 07775 812 357 or email media@childrenssociety.org.uk. For out-of-hours enquiries please call 07810 796 508.

Notes to Editors:

•The full report is available here.

Specialist mental health services are known as CAMHS (Tier 3) services. They provide a range of support for young people with more severe, complex and persistent needs. Professionals who provide the services may include therapists, psychotherapists, psychologists, social workers and Youth Offending Teams. They are normally commissioned by Clinical Commissioning Groups and are often based in the local community. In most areas, only those professionals formally working with the young person such as their GP, school or social services can make referrals into these services.

•The Children’s Society’s report is based on responses to Freedom of Information requests sent to 36 mental health trusts in England. The data covers the 2014/15 financial year.

•More information about The Children’s Society’s policies on mental health can be found in our discussion paper, Children’s Mental Health: Priorities for Improving Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services in England, available here: http://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/what-we-do/resources-and-publications...

•The Children’s Society is a national charity that runs local services, helping children and young people when they are at their most vulnerable, and have nowhere left to turn. We also campaign for changes to laws affecting children and young people, to stop the mistakes of the past being repeated in the future. Our supporters around the country fund our services and join our campaigns to show children and young people they are on their side.