Children’s mental health services need ‘rocket boost’ in funding

Nicole Weinstein
Monday, February 1, 2021

Children’s mental health services need a ‘rocket boost’ in funding if they are to support the one in six children in England who have a probable mental health condition – as well as those suffering the consequences of the pandemic, the Children’s Commissioner has warned.

The Children's Commissioner report highlights the impact that Covid has had on children's mental health
The Children's Commissioner report highlights the impact that Covid has had on children's mental health

At the launch of her fourth annual report on the state of services in England, Anne Longfield called for a large-scale increase for children’s mental health services, including an NHS-funded counsellor in every school in England, as well as online well-being support.

The report examines the progress that has been made over the past five years (up until the end of last March), as well as the impact the Covid crisis has had on children’s mental health.

It finds that a cocktail of education disruption, isolation from friends, limited chances to play and worry about the impact of the virus on their families had taken a heavy toll on some children.

While there has been an expansion of children’s mental health services over the past four years, the poor starting point was so poor that services are still ‘nowhere near’ meeting the needs of many hundreds of thousands of children, it states.

In the year before the pandemic, referrals to children’s mental health services increased by 35 per cent while the number of children accessing treatment increased by just four per cent.

A large study, undertaken by the NHS in July 2020, found that clinically significant mental health conditions among children had risen by 50 percent compared to three years earlier, with one in six children now having a probable mental health condition.

The report states that there has already been a spike in referrals to NHS services during autumn 2020, and it is likely that the level of underlying mental health problems will remain significantly higher as a result of the pandemic.

Ms Longfied said, ‘Even before the Covid pandemic, we faced an epidemic of children’s mental health problems in England and a children’s mental health service that, though improving significantly, was still unable to provide the help hundreds of thousands of children required.

‘It is widely accepted that lockdown and school closures have had a detrimental effect on the mental health of many children. Since the NHS study in July 2020 estimating one in six children in England have a probable mental health condition, we have had another long lockdown. Sadly, this will be causing even more damage to many children’s mental well-being and putting even greater strains on mental health services, potentially for years to come.

‘That is why in the short term it is so important the Government sets out a roadmap that helps schools to reopen over the coming weeks.'

Ms Longfield also warns that the Government’s current plan to roll out NHS-led counselling in schools to 20 to 25 percent of areas by 2023 is not ambitious enough, particularly following the Covid pandemic, and repeats her call for an NHS-funded counsellor for every school as quickly as possible. 

‘In the longer term, the Government’s "building back better" plans must include a rocket boost in funding for children’s mental health, to expand services and eliminate the postcode lottery. As an absolute minimum, all schools should be provided with an NHS-funded counsellor, either in school or online,' she said.

‘We have seen how the NHS has risen to the scale of the Covid crisis for adults. We owe children, who are suffering the secondary consequences of the pandemic, a mental health service that provides the help and support they need.’

Positive progress

The main positive from the analysis is that some individual local areas are improving above and beyond what central Government has expected of them, and delivering vastly improved services for children.

But it also found that there was a postcode lottery around what local areas spend; waiting times for treatment; access to treatment and how many children are referred to services and go on to receive support. Seventy local areas in England close 30 per cent or more of their cases before children access support, and in Herefordshire, this rises to 48 percent of cases, according to the report.

Children’s Commissioner calls for the Government to raise its ambition to deliver a ‘wholesale change’ in the way children’s mental health services are provided.

She argues that the work that has been undertaken over the past five years paves the way - in particular the creation of Mental Health Support Teams, which provide a model of integrated mental health care across schools and the NHS.

One positive development from the Covid-19 crisis is that it has shown that some of these services can be provided digitally, the report states.

Download the report here

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