The Royal College of Psychiatrists has called for a greater focus on early intervention to stop children reaching crisis point
“We want to provide young people with effective care as soon as they need it, not once they’ve already developed a serious illness which could have been prevented. That’s why we need to see government focus on prevention and reversing the rising rates of mental illness, as well as ensuring sufficient resourcing of specialist services.” Dr Lade Smith, president, Royal College of Psychiatrists
The number of children in England referred to emergency mental healthcare has increased by more than 50% in three years, according to a new analysis of official data.
In 2022-23, there were 32,521 emergency and urgent referrals to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) crisis teams, compared to 21,242 in 2019-20, the year before the pandemic.
The figures suggest that more than 600 mentally ill children are reaching crisis point every week.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists, which analysed the figures, said that many of the children requiring emergency care have been stuck on waiting lists for an average of five months, and in the worst cases as long as two years. Some of those children are suicidal or seriously ill as a result of eating disorders.
Dr Lade Smith, the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, told the Guardian that no one “should have to watch their child’s mental health deteriorate while they wait for care,” adding: “It’s completely unacceptable that this is the reality facing so many families.”
She said that ministers should take urgent action to provide targeted support to every child in need of mental healthcare: “We want to provide young people with effective care as soon as they need it, not once they’ve already developed a serious illness which could have been prevented. That’s why we need to see government focus on prevention and reversing the rising rates of mental illness, as well as ensuring sufficient resourcing of specialist services.”
An emergency referral is typically made if a child needs to be seen within 24 hours, perhaps because they have suicidal feelings and are a risk to themselves, or because their eating disorder has deteriorated to an extent that they urgently need help.
While schools and social services can make emergency referrals to CAMHS, most are made by GPs and doctors in A&E departments, which are seeing rising numbers of mentally ill children arrive with nowhere else to turn.
Dr Elaine Lockhart, the chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ child and adolescent faculty, said: “It’s unacceptable that so many children and young people are reaching crisis point before they are able to access care. We cannot allow this to become the new norm.
“Severe mental illness is not just an adult problem. The need for specialist mental health services for children and young people is growing all the time.”
Many of the conditions arising in children could be prevented through prompt access to care, she added: “The evidence shows us that children who receive support quickly are less likely to develop long-term conditions that negatively affect their education, social development and health in later life.
“Government and integrated care boards must commit to reducing the rate of mental illness among children by setting an achievable target. This needs to be backed by an expansion of the mental health workforce and additional funding for services.”
Daisy Cooper MP, the Liberal Democrats health spokesperson, said that the increase in emergency referrals should be a “wake-up call for the government. Conservative ministers have neglected children’s mental health during and after the pandemic, leaving mental health services and families in crisis.”
“Every young person should be able to access the help they need when they need it,” said Laura Bunt, the chief executive of YoungMinds, a children’s mental health charity. “The government must prioritise young people’s mental health and make it much easier for them to get support.”
Last year, the government announced an extra £5m to improve access to early support hubs for people aged 11 to 25. The College said, however, that an extra £125m to £205m would be needed to establish hubs in every local authority, with running costs of at least £114m a year.
This very steep rise, in only three years, in the number of children needing urgent mental health treatment, is extremely worrying. Evidence shows that more and more children are experiencing mental health problems, and these figures suggest that they are simply not receiving help at an early enough stage, and therefore many are reaching crisis point. While the £5m investment in early support hubs is welcome, it will not be enough to stem the tide of children requiring mental health help. We would like to see a much greater emphasis on early detection of mental health problems, with support provided in schools and community centres so that children in need of help, along with their parents, can access it in a timely fashion without having to remain or months or years on a waiting list.