Record number of children seeking mental health support, nearly double pre-pandemic levels

A record number of children and young people in England have sought mental health support, according to new analysis.

In just three months, almost 200,000 youngsters were referred to mental health services – nearly double pre-pandemic levels.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists said that the figures show that the pandemic is taking its toll on children and young people.

The College analysed NHS Digital data on mental health referrals for children and young people aged 18 and under.

It found that between April and June this year, 190,271 children aged 18 and under were referred to children and young people’s mental health services – almost twice the number referred during the same period in 2019 when 97,342 were referred.

Urgent referrals had also risen steeply.

From April to June in 2019, 5,219 children and young people were referred for urgent support. This rose to 8,552 in 2021, the College said.

At the end of June, a total of 340,694 people were in contact with children and young people’s mental health services – a rise from 225,480 in June 2019.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists said that early help for youngsters is “key to recovery” as it called on newly appointed Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi to prioritise children and young people’s mental health.

The College said that schools should have plans in place to respond to pupils’ mental health needs.

And there must be an increase in investment in staff training to improve the roll-out of Mental Health Support Teams, it added.

Dr Elaine Lockhart (pictured), chair of the child and adolescent faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “These alarming figures reflect what I and many other frontline psychiatrists are seeing in our clinics on a daily basis.

“The pandemic has had a devastating effect on the nation’s mental health, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that children and young people are suffering terribly.

“Early intervention is key to recovery. Schools have a critical role to play in this and the Education Secretary must do all that he can to prioritise pupils’ mental health.

“Children’s mental health services must also be properly funded and properly staffed if we are to treat the ever-growing number needing mental health care. Without investment we run the risk of many more needing crisis help.”

The College also said that eating disorder treatment services are seeing more patients than ever, but warned of an “unprecedented” number of children waiting for care.

A mother whose teenage daughter relapsed into anorexia during the pandemic, who did not wish to be named, said: “The pandemic has been devastating for my daughter and for our family.

“The disruption to her normal routines and socialising really affected her recovery. She was spending a lot less time doing the things she enjoys and a lot more time alone with her thoughts.

“Unfortunately, she relapsed, becoming so unwell she was admitted to hospital and sectioned. After 72 days in hospital with no specialist eating disorder bed becoming available, we brought her home where I had to tube feed her for 10 weeks.

“My daughter urgently needed specialist help for this life-threatening illness, but services are completely overwhelmed because so many young people need help. It’s a terrifying situation for patients and families to be in.”

Tom Madders, director of campaigns at the charity YoungMinds, said: “It is devastating that so many children and young people are in need of mental health support and that there has been such a rise in those who need crisis care.

“These record numbers provide further evidence of the toll of the pandemic on children and young people’s mental health, something that the sector has been warning of for some time.

“We know how many children and young people have struggled over the last 18 months, and it’s clear much more must be done to meet the demand and ease the pressure on NHS services.

“Too many young people struggling with their mental health are either not being seen or are facing an agonising wait once they are referred, leaving them at risk of reaching crisis before they get any support.

“The Government must urgently invest in children’s mental health services and properly fund mental health support in schools, but there must also be much better support for young people before they reach crisis.

“That’s why we are calling on them to invest in a network of early support hubs, to ease the pressure on NHS services and ensure young people can get help as soon as they need it.”

Imran Hussain, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, said: “These shocking figures make clear the NHS is facing a crisis on top of a crisis when it comes to children’s mental health.”

A Government spokesperson said: “We know the past year has brought additional challenges for many children and young people, which is why we’ve prioritised getting them back into the classroom and made their mental health and wellbeing a central part of our pandemic response.

“We’re investing £79 million to expand children’s mental health services, and through our Long Term Plan an additional 345,000 children will be able to access NHS-funded support by 2024.

“Alongside our ambitious education recovery plans, which can be used to support pupils’ mental health and wellbeing, we are also improving the support currently available in schools, including by offering training for a senior mental health lead in schools and colleges.”

An spokesman for the NHS in England added: “The pandemic has inevitably had an impact on the nation’s mental health but as the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ own analysis shows, the NHS is helping more children and young people than ever before, with over 600,000 supported in the year up to June.

“While there is more to do, the NHS has already set up mental health crisis lines, put more support in schools so that help is available at an earlier stage, as well setting out ambitious plans to treat an additional 345,000 children and young people each year thanks to the NHS Long Term Plan.”

– Charity Young Minds also offers support for children and young people. Those in need of urgent support can find their local NHS team online or by contacting Samaritans by calling 116 123 for free.

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