Mental health spending leaves children facing postcode lottery

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Investment in children’s mental health services has fallen in over a third of local areas in England, with wide variation across the country, according to the Children’s Commissioner for England.

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Anne Longfield, children's commissioner for England

Anne Longfield has published a report looking at the amount spent on ‘low-level’ mental health support for children in England.

‘Low-level’ mental health services consist of preventative and early intervention services for problems such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders, including support from school nurses or counsellors, drop-in centres and online counselling services.

The research found local areas allocated a total of £226 million for low-level mental health services in 2018/19, just over £14 per child across both local authorities and NHS spending.

The report suggests there are wide variations in how much funding is available between different local areas, with the top 25 per cent spending at least £1.1 million, but the bottom 25 per cent spending £180,000 or less.

In London, local authority spending on low-level mental health services was £17.88 per child, compared to only £5.32 per child in the East of England.

While the total reported spend on low-level mental health services across all areas in England increased by 17 per cent in real terms between 2016/17 and 2018/19, nearly 60 per cent of local authorities saw a real-terms fall.

The NHS Long Term plan, published in January, revealed that less than a third of children with a mental health problem are accessing the necessary treatment and support.

The children’s commissioner Anne Longfield said, ‘This report reveals for the first time the postcode lottery facing the increasing number of children suffering from low-level mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. It is extremely worrying that a third of local areas in England are actually reducing real terms spending on these vital services.

‘The children I speak to who are suffering from conditions like anxiety and depression aren’t asking for intensive in-patient therapeutic treatment, they just want to be able to talk to a counsellor about their worries and to be offered advice on how to stop their problems turning into a crisis.

‘The NHS Ten Year Plan has made children’s mental health a top priority, but it won’t succeed unless children with low-level mental health problems are offered help quickly and early. Local authorities are under huge financial pressure and many are doing a good job, but those who are spending barely anything on low-level mental health cannot continue to leave children to struggle alone.’

Commenting on the findings, Action for Children’s director of policy and campaigns, Imran Hussain, said, ‘These figures reveal the disturbing reality that vast numbers of children in England are getting locked out of the early help that can prevent mental health difficulties spiralling into something more serious. Government cuts have resulted in a third of local areas cutting back on these vital crisis-prevention services.

‘Rather than enjoying a carefree childhood, every day at Action for Children we see the pressures today’s children and teenagers are under – with many suffering from depression, anxiety or losing sleep at night. But we also know early help can make a world of difference.

‘Without urgent investment by central Government that lets the NHS and local councils support children earlier, too many young people will continue to struggle alone and could be left facing mental health issues for the rest of their lives.’

Chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, Anntoinette Bramble, added, ‘Significant funding pressures mean many councils are being forced to cut some of the vital early intervention services which can support children with low-level mental health issues and avoid more serious problems in later life.

‘Children’s services face a funding gap of £3.1 billion by 2025 while public health services, which also help children get the best start in life, have seen cuts of £700 million. If we are to improve provision of preventative and early intervention services then it is vital the Government adequately funds these in the forthcoming spending review.

‘But we also need the NHS to work more effectively with councils. In addition, the Government promised £1.7 billion for children’s mental health, and it should make certain that all of this is received by children’s mental health services, and not diverted elsewhere. Where it has been spent on other services, Government should make up the shortfall.’

Download the Children’s Commissioner’s overview report 

Steve McCabe, MP for Birmingham, Selly Oak, has tabled an early day motion on new mental health legislation for children. The motion, also backed by Helen Clark, lead author of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on A Fit and Healthy Childhood, calls for new children’s mental health legislation, investment in a properly qualified workforce, and the inclusion of a new Mental Health Bill that focuses on the needs of children in the next Queen's Speech. The motion, tabled on 9 April, has so far been signed by 14 MPs.

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