Figures obtained by the BBC suggest that mental health units are failing to protect children and young people
"[There is] an awful lot of variation in practice... there are a lot of excellent staff who are really striving to do their best”. Dr Bernadka Dubicka, editor in chief, Journal of Child and Adolescent Mental Health
Since 2019, at least 20 patients aged 18 or under have died in NHS or privately-run mental health units, a freedom of information request from the BBC has revealed.
The figures also show that a further 26 patients died within a year of leaving the units.
Of the 20 deaths, 18 were in England, with one in Scotland and one in Northern Ireland. Sixteen took place in NHS-run wards, and four in privately-run units.
Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (Camhs) units look after about 4,000 patients each year. The aim is to offer specialist care that helps them recover over a period of weeks or months.
The BBC report said it had also heard a number of stories about patients being discharged unsafely without proper follow-up care. Several former patients said they had undertaken serious self-harm or tried to take their own life within days of returning home. Parents described being on suicide watch 24 hours a day to make sure their child was safe.
Dr Bernadka Dubicka, editor in chief of the Journal of Child and Adolescent Mental Health, said that Camhs wards can be a “lifeline” for many patients, and that while there is “an awful lot of variation in [standards of] practice… there are a lot of excellent staff who are really striving to do their best”.
But she added that despite evidence showing “post-discharge is one of the most risky periods in a young person’s life”, in large parts of the country there is not enough intensive support from community Camhs teams for patients returning home.
In recent years, demand for Camhs services have soared, while the NHS struggles with staff shortages. Between 2017 and 2021, there was a 77% rise in the number of children needing specialist treatment for severe mental health crisis. Often, says Dubicka, patients do not receive the community support they need: “By the time they are seen, their mental health problems are really entrenched.”
There is concern that an over-reliance on temporary staff puts patients at risk. Other data collated by the BBC, from 32 of the 41 areas with NHS-run Camhs wards across the UK, shows that spending on agency nurses per bed rose by 72% between 2017 and 2021.
The NHS said it had “invested record amounts” in response to record demand.
The revelations about the high rates of deaths in mental health units designed to take care of children show just how stretched mental health services are. The long-awaited workforce plan, due later this year, must spell out detailed proposals for recruiting and retaining mental health staff, both within such units and within the community to prevent children from reaching crisis point. The loss of life here is tragic. Specialist treatment and more staffing is only one part of this complex scenario. This freedom of information request is one of many serious revelations in recent months demonstrating the precarious state of the nation’s mental health, in youth and adulthood.