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Children are now more aware of their own mental health, and much more prepared to discuss it. This is very welcome.

But children are also aware of how hard it is to get help, for them or for their friends. Accessing services remains the biggest issue for children’s mental health services. The stories I hear from children are the same ones that are posted on Twitter under the #CAMHS hashtag: children repeatedly struggling to access help; being turned away; given one appointment where they are told they are ‘not ill enough’ to qualify for services and offered ‘advice’ instead; children constantly feeling the need to justify why they should be getting help. The children who I meet who have got treatment are generally – though not always – positive about how they’ve been helped. But getting through that front door is an ordeal for too many.

This is particularly so for the children who I meet after things have gone wrong, or help has arrived too late: children who have ended up in care homes far from home, in mental health hospital or in custody. The common story I hear is how mental health issues developed, and very often got worse, before they got any help. 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’d been on an NHS mental health waiting list when they had to go into residential care, and all believed if they’d 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 data I have analysed for this report shows that these children’s stories are not isolated; the children who fear that there aren’t people there to help them, are often not wrong, because mental health services for children still bear little resemblance to what is needed.

Key statistics

53 days
average wait for a child to enter treatment
of children referred in Southwark accessed CYPMHS
of total mental health spending is on children, but they account for 20% of the population
CCGs in England increased spending on CYPMHS (per child) in 2018/19