A BBC investigation has found that children struggling with mental health problems during the pandemic are facing “agonisingly” long waits for treatment
Data from half of England’s specialist mental health services for children had found that one in five youngsters seen since the coronavirus hit waited longer than 12 weeks for care.
The numbers still waiting for these services had also appearred to be rising sharply.
Doctors have said that the services were currently so stretched that under-18s were turning up tot A&E as they could not get the required help.
Dr Catherine Hayhurst, from the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, has said that in many cases NHS hospitals have been left with no other option but to admit young people on to general wards, even though they cannot be provided with the specialist mental health support there.
“Children are distressed and agitated. It’s difficult to manage on the wards,” she said.
NHS England has acknowledged the COVID-19 pandemic has been very difficult for both children and young people, but it said that it was in the process of significantly expanding access to services in the country, in order to ensure that they received quick access to care.
This comes after NHS staff have voted overwhelmingly in opposition to the government’s 3% pay rise as Britain’s biggest health union had warned thousands of workers are “fed up of being taken for granted”.
Sue Peacock’s teenage daughter suffers from severe anxiety and has self-harmed. She has been waiting for treatment since before the pandemic began.
Ms Peacock said that the situation has made her daughter feel depressed and start to become violent.
“We don’t know how long it’s going to be before she receives help.
“That feeling of helplessness, I can’t even describe how awful as a parent it is to see that.
“You’re waiting for a service that you know can help your child.”
Specialist care is provided by a network that is known as Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).
These teams are made up of psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses and social workers who support children with conditions that can range from anxiety and depression to schizophrenia.
During 2020 and 2021, they saw 420,000 children and young people – although an estimated 1.5 million under-18s are thought to have a mental health disorder.
The waits they faced are not routinely published.
But the BBC obtained data under the Freedom of Information Act from 46 of England’s services, half of the total, covering just over 250,000 patients.
The figures from April 2020 to March 2021 showed that:
- Half of those who were seen waited longer than four weeks
- A fifth waited more than 12 weeks
- The average wait was more than two months – although in some areas it topped eight
A third of the trusts also provided data on youngsters still waiting for treatment, with the numbers doubling since the end of the first lockdown in June 2020.
There are signs that waiting times have improved since before the pandemic.
But this is likely to be down to a drop in people coming forward for help in the first lockdown, helping services tackle the backlog in those waiting for treatment.
This comes after Britain is facing a “baby shortage” that could lead to “long-term economic stagnation”, a thinktank has said. Last year the number of children per woman averaged 1.58 in England and Wales, compared with 2.93 in 1964 – its peak year.
Head teacher Michelle Catterson has lost her faith in the nation’s child mental health services because of the long waits. She runs Moon Hall School located in Surrey, which teaches children who are between the ages of 7 and 16 with dyslexia.
One of her students tried to kill themselves this year, but they could not get seen by a proffesional. In the end her family had to pay for them to be seen privately.
“The pandemic has been really difficult for children. But the support is just not there when they need it,” Ms Catterson said.
“Services are completely overwhelmed as things stand currently.
“When I have parents that are in a really desperate situation, I’m often reluctant to refer them because I know the length of time that they’ll have to wait, and sometimes there just isn’t that opportunity to wait.
“You need that support right there, right then, to try and help the child and the family.”