Figures analysed by PA media show an increase in referrals for a range of serious mental illnesses
“When the lockdowns and pandemic struck, that really had such a negative effect on a lot of children. Those who had been doing well became vulnerable and those were vulnerable became unwell.`' Dr Elaine Lockhart, chair of the child and adolescent psychiatry faculty, Royal College of Psychiatrists
The number of children in England needing treatment for serious mental health problems has risen by 39% in a year, according to new figures from the NHS.
In 2021-22, there were 1.1m referrals to mental health treatment for under-18s, compared with 839,570 in 2020-21, and 850,741 in 2019-20, an analysis by PA Media showed.
These figures include children who are suicidal, self-harming, have eating disorders or are experiencing serious depression or anxiety.
Dr Elaine Lockhart, chair of the child and adolescent psychiatry faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said the rise in referrals reflected a “whole range” of illnesses.
She said “specialist services are needing to respond to the most urgent and the most unwell”, including young people suffering from psychosis, suicidal thoughts and severe anxiety disorder.
Lockhart said targets for seeing children urgently with eating disorders were sliding “completely” and that more staff were needed.
“I think what’s frustrating for us is [that] if we could see them more quickly and intervene, then the difficulties might not become as severe as they do because they’ve had to wait,” she added.
Lockhart said children’s mental health had been getting worse before the pandemic, with increasing social inequality, austerity and online harm playing a role: “When the lockdowns and pandemic struck, that really had such a negative effect on a lot of children. Those who had been doing well became vulnerable and those were vulnerable became unwell.
“And part of that was about children themselves feeling very untethered from the day-to-day life that supports them … but also seeing their own parents struggle, and then that collective heightened sense of anxiety and loss of control we all had really affected children.”
Tom Madders, director of campaigns at YoungMinds, said the figures were “deeply concerning”, adding: “The last year has been one of the most difficult for this age group, emerging from the pandemic to more limited prospects for their futures, coupled with an increase in academic pressure to catch up on lost learning, and the impact of the cost-of-living crisis.
“The current state of play cannot continue. The government must get a grip of the situation.”
Separate NHS Digital data shows a very high rise in hospital admissions for eating disorders among children and young people. Among under-18s, there were 7,719 admissions in 2021-22, up from 6,079 the previous year and 4,232 in 2019-20 — an 82 per cent rise in two years. The NSPCC described the figures as “alarming”.
These figures confirm a pattern that has been apparent for a while: mental health problems among young people are soaring. This is a disturbing trend that suggests that a whole generation of children and young people are struggling to remain mentally well. Tom Madders of YoungMinds is right to say that this cannot continue. At a time when the NHS is already overstretched, it is clear that government needs, not just to invest more in treatment, but to work on identifying the causes and developing preventative strategies.