The numbers of children referred to mental health crisis teams in a single month reached 3,000 earlier this year, data shows
“We are now in a mental health emergency and the government must get a grip on the scale of this crisis. Many young people are having to wait months and years to access help, while many others are told they don’t meet the threshold for a referral to mental health services. No young person should be left waiting for help while their mental health worsens.” Laura Bunt, chief executive, YoungMinds
The number of children in mental health crisis has reached record levels in England, according to an analysis of NHS data.
The mental health charity YoungMinds, which has analysed the data, found that the number of urgent referrals of children under-18 to mental health crisis teams rose to more than 3,732 in May this year. This is three times higher than in May 2019. April this year saw the number of urgent referrals reach more than 3,000 for the first time.
In the year to March 2023 there were 21,555 urgent referrals to mental health crisis teams, up 46% on 2022.
Children referred to crisis teams are those with the most acute mental health symptoms, and might otherwise need to go to hospital for psychosis, severe self-harm or suicide attempts.
The NHS data also reveals that the number of children and young people undergoing treatment or waiting to start care also reached a record high, with 466,250 open referrals to children and young people’s mental health services (CAMHS) in May.
Laura Bunt, the chief executive of YoungMinds, said the figures were “indicative of a system that is broken and a government that has refused to listen to young people demanding change”.
She said: “We are now in a mental health emergency and the government must get a grip on the scale of this crisis. Many young people are having to wait months and years to access help, while many others are told they don’t meet the threshold for a referral to mental health services. No young person should be left waiting for help while their mental health worsens.”
The new data coincides with the publication of an interim report on the government’s major conditions strategy, which aims to manage cancer, musculoskeletal conditions, chronic respiratory diseases, mental ill health and dementia more effectively. This strategy replaces the long-term mental health plan, originally due to be published earlier this year. Young Minds said that abandoning the 10-year mental health plan had “further delayed government action for young people’s mental health” and that the new strategy “falls far short of what’s needed”.
Bunt commented: “The interim report on the major conditions strategy fails to provide any clarity on how the government plans to tackle the growing emergency in young people’s mental health. It does not cite mental health as a main concern for young people’s health, nor does it provide any confidence that this strategy will improve mental health services for young people.
“Young people’s mental health needs to be at the heart of this strategy and we need to see a clear plan on how they are going to drive down prevalence.”
Responding to the figures, Dr Elaine Lockhart, the chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ faculty of child and adolescent psychiatry, said the mental health crisis was having “a devastating impact on the wellbeing of our children and young people”.
She added: “Services are doing their best to meet this rise in demand for treatment but a lack of staff and resources is making it difficult for them to see patients quickly. This is contributing to a harmful spiral in which many young people are being placed on long waiting lists, which can lead to their symptoms becoming more serious over time and them eventually presenting to services in crisis.”
The children’s commissioner, Dame Rachel de Souza, said: “I am really concerned about these latest figures. We must make sure that support is available to children early, that there is a focus on support before issues escalate, and that care is available to all children who need it and in a timely manner. I want to see mental health support teams delivered in every school by the end of 2025 and a clear-eyed focus on the specific needs of children in government mental health investment.”
These new figures confirm a continuing upward trend in the numbers of children referred to mental health services. They are particularly concerning because the figures relate, not to low-level conditions, but serious problems such as suicide ideation and psychosis. Laura Bunt, chief executive of Young Minds, is right to point to the urgency of this issue, and we agree that the government’s decision to abandon a 10-year mental health plan that might have addressed it shows a disturbing complacency. The new major conditions strategy tackles a broad range of illnesses, but this data shows that what we now need is a focused approach to tackling mental ill-health amongst young people.