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NHS struggling to meet rising demand for children's mental health services

Original image: Ben Wicks

NHS trusts are finding it difficult to keep up with demand for children's mental health services, a new survey suggests.

Carried out by NHS Providers, the survey of 35 NHS trust leaders in England reveals the growing pressure to meet demand for youth mental health support, including services for eating disorders, self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

All respondents report that demand for services in their trust has risen within the past 6 months, 80% of whom have seen a significant increase and 20% of whom have seen a moderate increase.

The higher demand has substantially impacted waiting times for young people to access much needed support – 3 in 10 trusts report significantly longer waiting times – while two-thirds of trusts are unable to meet demand for community Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and in-patient CAMHS services.

Of all services, 85% of trusts said that they were unable to meet demand for eating disorder support – the highest result across all services.

When asked about what was driving the increased workload for NHS trusts, 88% cited more complex cases of mental health issues due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 42% said the pandemic itself was to blame, and 42% suggested a lack of care in the community.

A shortage of patients beds (36%) and staff were also common reasons given.

“COVID-19 has clearly had a big impact on children’s lives and their mental health," said deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, Saffron Cordery. “As the NHS focuses on recovery from the pandemic, we must recognise the extent of its impact on mental health services and ensure they also get the focus and attention they need."

According to Cordery, the pandemic has highlighted an existing issue in young people's mental health services, saying it has "brought into sharp focus the impact of rising demand and chronic underinvestment in beds, workforce and capital", despite improved funding for the sector.

“Trusts are doing all they can to reduce waiting times, intervene as early as possible and to prevent mental, ill health in the first place," added Cordery.

“These findings provide further powerful evidence that in addressing the NHS’ backlog of care and the impact of Covid-19, mental health services – including those for children and young people – must be an absolute priority.”

Concerns over the impact the pandemic would have on the mental health of young people have been rife during the months of national lockdown, particularly with regards to the lack of structure and social interaction that places of education would usually provide.

According to a recent report, 60% of secondary school teachers have seen a mental health problem emerge in students who were previously unknown to have them within the past year.

In anticipation of an increased demand for youth mental health services, the government announced a £79 million investment package which will in part go toward placing mental health professionals within more schools and colleges throughout the country.

The idea is to provide better, more appropriate mental health support for young people when it is most needed, as well as to ensure improved responses by existing school staff through enhanced mental health training.

Commenting on the survey findings, Claire Murdoch, NHS England’s national mental health director, said: “The pandemic has turned lives upside down, hitting young people particularly hard and in some areas, staff are now treating more children and young people than ever before – the NHS has responded rapidly to the increased demand with a wide range of services available for those who need help, including through 183 mental health support teams working with schools across the country.

“The NHS is playing its part to manage increased demand for mental health and anyone who needs support should continue to come forward, but everyone, including social media and advertisers who have so much influence on the minds of our young people, should step up and play their part too.”

To read the full survey results, click here.


Written by Marco Ricci Editor and contributor for Talking Mental Health


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