Last month I published the findings of my annual mental health briefing, which showed that there has been a surge in demand for help from children’s mental health services. What worried me most about this report was that the progress that had been made in recent years to improve children’s access to the right support has stalled. Waiting times for children to receive treatment for their mental health has increased for the first time in years, and service provision is patchy around the country.
This report was based on a data request I made to the NHS, using my statutory powers under the Children Act 2004. It covers every area in the country and shows that there is huge variation in what children receive. In the best area in the country – Leicester – children receive treatment in an average of 13 days (between referral and second contact with the NHS). However, in Sunderland that goes up to 80 days. And these numbers don’t include the children who are still waiting to receive that treatment.
These findings are borne out by research carried out by the House magazine and reported by The Guardian today: an increasing postcode lottery of support, with both investment and waiting times varying vastly.
It is absolutely vital that children, wherever they are, can access timely support for their mental health, because all children deserve to feel well. And good mental health is also essential for all the other things we want for children – for them to be able to attend school every day, to participate in their communities, to enjoy time with their family.
And without support, things can end up in crisis. My team have spoken to children living in mental health inpatient settings who say time and again that if only the right help had been there earlier on, they wouldn’t have ended up in hospital. As one girl said ‘I was in A&E lots of times but was just sent home. In the end it was her headteacher who kept calling for help until finally I was admitted to hospital’ – Girl, 16
But too many children still are ending up in hospital, and there seems to be a particular issue for older teenage girls. 71% of detentions of children under the Mental Health Act are of girls.
It is my aim for no child to live in an institution. These settings struggle to provide the kind of caring, familial environment that children desperately need. And I am if anything even more worried about the rapidly growing number of children being deprived of liberty in other types of settings – where no official data tells us where they are living, or how long for.
That is why I want to see every child getting the right support in their community, as soon as they need it. Because as one girl in hospital so rightly put it ‘The best place to get better is at home’.