Mental health services failing children with life-threatening conditions

28 May 2016

Some children’s mental health services failing children with life-threatening conditions

  • 28% of referrals for children’s mental health support are turned away
  • 14% of children with life-threatening mental health conditions are being turned away from treatment
  • Children and young people on mental health waiting lists for up to 200 days
  • 35% of trusts restrict access to children who miss appointments

Over a quarter of children (28%) who were referred for specialist mental health treatment in 2015 did not receive a service, according to new information collected by the Children’s Commissioner for England using her unique powers to request data from public bodies. In one trust 75% of referrals were not considered to meet the threshold for treatment.

A significant proportion of children with life-threatening mental health conditions - 14% of the 3,000 about whom information was obtained - were denied specialist support. These included children who had attempted suicide or serious self-harm and those with psychosis and anorexia nervosa.

Of 28 trusts that submitted information on waiting times for mental health treatment, four reported average waits of over 100 days and in one, the average wait for children who made it onto the list for treatment was 200 days.

Although children and young people can experience a variety of difficulties in attending mental health appointments, a third (35%) of trusts that responded to the question about restricting access to services for children who missed appointments, said that they would do so.

Children and young people are asking for:

  • an enhanced role for schools in identifying early symptoms of mental ill health
  • reduced waiting times between referral and appointments with a specialist and for better support whilst on the waiting list
  • services that are closer to their home and on neutral territory such as in a park
  • texts and phone calls rather than letters to encourage young people to attend first appointments
  • reducing the stigma of having a mental health condition
  • providing drop-in services for young people where they can talk about things that worry them.

Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England said:

“Children and young people consistently tell me that they need better mental health support but the information we have received paints a picture of provision that is patchy, difficult to access and unresponsive.

“Behind the stats are countless stories of children and young people in desperate circumstances not getting the vital support they need.

“I’ve heard from far too many children who have been denied access to support or struck off the list because they missed appointments. I’ve heard from others whose GPs could not manage their condition and who had to wait months to see a specialist whilst struggling with their conditions."

About the data

The data for this report was captured using the Children’s Commissioner’s legal powers to obtain information about children.

Sixty NHS trusts in England were asked to provide information about child and adolescent mental health provision and 48 responded.

Read the full report here.