Number of young people waiting for mental health treatment reaches record high

Staffing shortages mean that children and young people are having to undergo long waits for mental health treatment

26th March 2024 about a 4 minute read
“Without access to good, timely care, children with mental health needs are at increased risk of harm and in some cases suicide. This issue is a ticking time bomb, and we will face the consequences if it’s not resolved.” Chris Dzikiti, director of mental health, CQC

Nearly half a million children and young people were waiting for, or undergoing, mental health treatment in November 2023, according to a new report from the Care Quality Commission (CQC).

In Monitoring the Mental Health Act, its annual report on the use of the Mental Health Act, the regulator warned that short staffing, underfunding and severe treatment delays have made young people’s mental health services a “ticking time bomb”. It said that children face an average waiting time of 40 days from referral to treatment.

Chris Dzikiti, director of mental health at the CQC, said: “Half a million children are receiving or waiting for mental health care and are having to wait on average 40 days to access care, but often much longer – with many reporting a deterioration in their mental health while waiting and some attempting to take their own life.

“Without access to good, timely care, children with mental health needs are at increased risk of harm and in some cases suicide. This issue is a ticking time bomb, and we will face the consequences if it’s not resolved.”

Children being placed in adult wards

The report, which involved conversations with 4,515 patients and 1,200 carers, said that many children had been placed in settings such as adult wards or general children’s wards, which had exacerbated their distress.

It said that staff shortages were responsible for numerous problems, including isolation, poorer quality of care, reduced access to activities and therapy, an increased risk of inappropriate restraint, and abuse directed towards both patients and staff.

Trusts were increasingly relying on agency staff to fill vacancies, something the regulator said was detrimental to therapeutic relationships and the provision of personalised care to patients, as well as harmful to the mental health and wellbeing of permanent staff.

The CQC said that it felt “encouraged to see attempts to improve staffing”, but was “concerned that this is not enough to address the current shortfall”.

Dzikiti said: “While staff are working hard, staffing shortages can make it extremely challenging to deliver personalised high-quality care.

“A larger, permanent workforce is needed to reduce pressures on overburdened healthcare workers, supported by improved community support and consistent funding to help struggling providers.

“Without these measures, people won’t get the mental health support they need – and the consequences, particularly for children and young people, could be devastating.”

As the numbers of children seeking mental health help rises, new efforts are being made to address mental health difficulties early.

Improving access to live music

One research project in Scotland has identified ways to enable children and  young people to experience the mental health benefits of live music.

The Live Music and Mental Health project, a joint initiative from Children in Scotland, Scottish Ensemble and the University of Stirling carried out between May and October 2023, explored the barriers to children and young people engaging with live music. It then worked with them to co-create solutions that would improve their access.

The researchers carried out workshops, known as Innovation Labs, in Inverness, Stirling and Glasgow. These drew 90 attendees, including children and young people, youth workers, music professionals and mental health practitioners, who together listened to live music performances and activities.

The project heard about the barriers to young people engaging with live music, including cost, transport, safety and additional support needs.

Participants came up with a series of recommendations for improving access, including free or heavily subsidised tickets; festivals and gigs for children and young people in their local areas; safe and quiet spaces for young people at music events; and free and/or specialist transport to and from venues.

Dr Lynne Gilmour of the University of Stirling, said: “We know that live music can be beneficial to children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing and now have some great co-produced ideas of how to deliver live music in a format that is more accessible and acceptable, not only to children and young people themselves, but also to those delivering events.”

Children in Scotland, University of Stirling and Scottish Ensemble will now explore funding opportunities to turn some of the ideas in the report into reality.

FCC Insight

The CQC findings, while confirming previous reports of rising rates of mental ill-health among children and young people, make for a sobering read. Not only are more children experiencing mental health problems, they are having to wait longer to access help. At the same time, mental health facilities, many of which are facing staff shortages, struggle to meet demand. While we need to do more to support children with mental health difficulties, it is also important to work on prevention, which is why projects such as Live Music and Mental Health, are so important. The collective experience of live music has been shown to provide a boost to mental wellbeing, and it would be good to see more initiatives that enable young people to participate in live music events.