Nearly half a million children are waiting for mental health treatment

Some children have been waiting more than four years to receive mental health treatment, according to NHS data

23rd January 2024 about a 4 minute read
"Young people are facing a mental health crisis. At the exact time when their need is the greatest, waiting lists for children and adolescent mental health services have never been longer.” Ed Shackle, associate director, Public First

Nearly half a million children are waiting for mental health treatment, according to new NHS figures analysed by the Independent.

According to the data, a record 496,897 under-18s had been referred by a GP for treatment under Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (Camhs) at the end of November last year.

Anxiety and depression are among the most common conditions for which children are being referred.

In one of the worst affected areas, Halton in Cheshire, the figures show that some children have been waiting for four-and-a-half years to be seen by a mental health professional. In all, 11 areas in England recorded under-18s waiting more than four years to be seen. Nationally, the average wait time is 107 days.

The Independent also found that 289,047 children have been approved for treatment under mental health services but are still waiting to have their first appointment – an increase of 50,000 in just two months.

Tom Madders of the mental health charity Young Minds said: “Behind every referral is a young person struggling to cope and calling for help from a broken system.”

One mother, whose 11-year-old daughter is still awaiting treatment for obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), told the newspaper: “The system is so broken. Unless you’re in it, you don’t get how broken it is.”

Poverty and mental health problems contribute to sharp rise in pupil absences

At the same time, a coalition of independent schools is arguing that the recent large increase in pupil absence is the result of a combination of poverty, mental health problems among children and parents, and undiagnosed special needs among children. The schools include Alleyn’s, City of London School for Girls and Eton.

Government figures show more than a fifth of pupils in England were “persistently absent” last year – more than double the rate for the equivalent period in 2018.

Ed Shackle, associate director at Public First, which is helping to run the coalition, said that supporting young people’s access to mental health services was a “surefire way of improving daily attendance”. He added: “One of the drivers of decreasing levels of school attendance is rising levels of pupil anxiety and mental health challenges.

“Young people are facing a mental health crisis. At the exact time when their need is the greatest, waiting lists for children and adolescent mental health services have never been longer.”

Neil Miller, deputy CEO of the London South East Academies Trust, told the Evening Standard: “Attendance issues are almost always entwined with other contextual matters such as family and social problems.”

Miller said he knew of children living in inadequate temporary accommodation which makes getting into school difficult. He added: “We see cases where pupils can’t get to school, due to lack of transport or funds to pay for it – which obviously impacts on attendance.”

He also said that many children with undiagnosed special educational needs are also more likely to skip school.

There has been much interest among academics in the causes of the rise of mental health problems among young people. One new review of research carried out by academics at Newcastle University, which covered 1.2 million children in 21 countries, found that energy drink consumption among young people is linked to poor sleep quality and short sleep duration as well as lower academic performance compared to non-energy drinkers.

Energy drink consumption was also associated with increased risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms, psychological distress, depression, anxiety, insulin resistance, and dental issues

More unexpectedly, a US study that looked at teenagers in the US and China found that those from larger families experienced more mental health issues than those from smaller ones. The research, published in the Journal of Family Issues, found that, in China, children without any siblings seemed to be the happiest, while in the US, having one or no siblings was about the same for mental health.

FCC Insight

The past few years have seen a steep rise in the numbers of children experiencing mental health problems, and it is clear that NHS services are struggling to meet demand. Tackling mental health problems among children requires an understanding that mental health is intertwined with a range of other social and familial factors. Heads are right to draw attention to the way that poverty, mental health problems and undiagnosed special needs are all contributing to pupil absences. We can only begin to address this by taking a multi-pronged approach that addresses poverty and deprivation and invests in better provision for children with special needs and community mental health services.