Children are ending up in care, custody or hospital because of failings in mental-health services, a report warns.
England’s Children’s Commissioner says children are still being told they are not ill enough and turned away, only for their conditions to worsen.
Anne Longfield said a “chasm” remained between what children needed and what they received, despite a sustained campaign.
The government said major improvements were already under way.
But Ms Longfield said a comprehensive mental-health service for children remained about “a decade away”.
In her report, she said: “This year I am particularly conscious of the girls my team met stuck in a children’s home hundreds of miles away from home and desperate to get back to friends and family.
“Every one of these girls said they had been on an NHS mental-health waiting list when they had to go into residential care and all believed if they had been able to get the help they needed when they needed it, they might have been able to remain with their families.
“The same is true for many children excluded from school, the majority of whom have mental-health issues.
“Failures in mental-health provision can be tragic for children but they also cascade into costs for wider society.”
The report highlights huge disparities across the country, with thresholds for care and waiting times from referral to first treatment appointment varying widely.
According to official NHS figures, nearly 13% of children aged between five and 19 – at least one million at any time – have at least one diagnosable mental-health disorder
But during the past year, just under 400,000 children were referred to children’s mental health services by GPs, schools or parents. Of these:
- 131,878 were still on the waiting list at the end of the year
- 135,430 had their referral closed before receiving any treatment
- 56,688 waited more than six weeks for treatment
- 74,130 started treatment within six weeks
On average, the NHS spends more than twice as much per head (£225) on adult mental health as it spends on child mental health (£92).
Ms Longfield said: “It is still not clear whether national and local government and the NHS is facing up to the scale of problems in children’s mental-health services and the devastating impact this has on children.
“The government doesn’t have a plan for a comprehensive service in every area and there is still no commitment to a counsellor in every school, which would make a huge difference.
“After years of government announcements on children’s mental health, children’s mental health remains the poor relation of NHS spending, receiving a fraction of the money invested in adults.
“Most areas are still spending less than 1% of their budget on children’s mental-health services and the postcode lottery of care means some areas are years ahead of others in improving services.”
Mental Health Minister Nadine Dorries said: “Spending on children’s mental health is growing faster than spending overall in the NHS, backed by an extra £2.3bn investment in mental health per year.
“We’re rolling out dedicated mental-health support teams in schools and trialling four-week waiting times in the NHS, so they have quicker access to an increased range of support and treatment when they need it.”
National Education Union joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said: “The findings of this report are further evidence of the chronic underfunding of children’s mental-health services and the lack of available support for so many children and young people who need it.”
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