10th October 2022

Children’s access to mental health support

Last year, in The Big Ask, my survey of over 550,000 children, they wrote about their hopes and dreams for the future, and what they need to help them achieve those goals. While most children were happy or fine, 20% were worried about their mental health and it was children’s biggest worry overall. The issue is also more acute amongst older teenage girls, with 40% of 16–17-year-olds reporting that they feel unhappy with their mental health.  They were also clear that even if they weren’t suffering from a mental health condition, being, and remaining, mentally healthy was a key focus for them. That’s why I have made children’s health and wellbeing a key pillar of my work as Children’s Commissioner.

There has been a sharp increase in the number of children experiencing mental health problems over the last two years. Because of the pandemic, the challenge is even greater. NHS surveys show that before the pandemic, in 2017, 12% of children between 6 and 16 had a probable mental health disorder. In 2021, this had risen to 17%. That’s why we need to think about what more we can do to support these children. This is something I spoke about in February of this year, in my annual briefing on children’s mental health services.

This year’s report showed that good progress has been made in increasing access to mental health services for children in need. Spending has increased year on year and this investment has made a difference. Fewer children are being turned away and average waiting times have decreased.

However, likely due to disruption and staff shortages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the number and rate of children referred to specialist NHS mental health services (for example by their GPs and teachers) has decreased for the first time since 2017/18 (the year when the office published the first iteration of this mental health briefing).

In 2020/21, almost half a million children in England were referred to Children and Young People’s Mental Health Services. This is equal to 4% of all children in England – a decrease from 4.5% in 2019/20, but an increase from 3.4% in 2018/19. For more information, please see the online appendix, found here, for full findings, interactive local area CCG maps, methodology and limitations.

Based on my conversations with children, I have proposed six ambitions that should be implemented to improve children’s mental health and provide early support. It is my mission as Children’s Commissioner that these ambitions go beyond words and become reality. As the report shows, this is a generation of children and young people who both understand the concept of mental health and know best about what will benefit them.

I will also publish the Children’s Mental Health Briefing annually with new data from the NHS every year, to continue to shine a light on this important area.