New figures from the Scottish public service watchdog show that the proportion of young people waiting over a year for mental health treatment has tripled since March 2020
Mental health treatment access is a rapidly growing issue in the healthcare industry as a growing number of people are attempting to get help for psychological problems they may have developed during the Covid-19 pandemic.
This is particularly true for young people in the UK. For example, in England, NHS Digital figures released at the beginning of the year show that 1 in 6 are now living with a mental health issue.
A similar picture is being revealed in Scotland where, according to new data from the country's public service watchdog, the proportion of young people waiting over a year for mental health treatment has tripled over the past 12 months.
The figures from Audit Scotland show that the proportion has increased from 6% in March 2020 to 18% in March 2021, while the percentage of those waiting longer than Scotland's 18-week target for being referred to specialist care has increased to from 1 in 4 in 2017/18 to 1 in 3 in 2020/21.
NHS Scotland's target is for 90% of young people referred to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) to be seen within 18 weeks. But this target is failing to be met by all but one health board, dropping the national average to just 67%.
NHS Ayrshire and Arran was the only health board to exceed the 90% target with a 96% referral record. NHS Forth Valley reported the lowest figure of 39%.
Overall, the number of referrals made to CAMHS services in Scotland actually dropped by 17% over the past 12 months which would suggest shorter waiting lists. However, this reduction was likely to do with school closures and reduced access to GPs due to the pandemic.
A growing legacy of missed targets
Although recent figures show poorer performance across almost all health boards with regards to achieving the 90% target, perhaps more concerning is that achievement rates have been poor for some time. Audit Scotland data show that only 2 health boards met the 90% target in both 2018/19 and 2019/20.
“Serious concerns have existed for years about access to children and young people’s mental health services," says Antony Clark, interim controller of audit, and interim director of Performance Audit and Best Value, in a blog post. “The pandemic’s impact has made the need for change more urgent.
"In 2018, both our report and research commissioned by the Scottish Government on rejected referrals found complex and fragmented systems that made it difficult for children and young people to get the support they need.
"A year later, a taskforce set up by the Scottish Government and [Convention of Scottish Local Authorities] called for reform. Earlier guidance and support, it said, was needed from GPs, health visitors, school nurses and others to create a more integrated system and reduce the chances of normal mental health difficulties escalating.
"But the picture today is similar to 2018, despite significant investment." The investment Clark refers to includes £40 million promised by the Scottish government dedicated to improving CAMHS services. A community mental health and wellbeing framework was also introduced in February this year which is thought to cost around £15 million per year.
Despite these efforts though, there remains a "steep hill to climb" to get CAMHS services to where they need to be, says Clark.
"The pandemic and the resulting restrictions have made it more important than ever that children and young people can access the support they need."
Read the full Audit Scotland blog post here.
Written by Marco Ricci
Editor and contributor for Talking Mental Health