A new report from the children’s commissioner also finds that waiting times for treatment have increased in the past year
“The commissioner’s report reveals stark and worrying gender inequalities within the children and young people’s mental health system. It’s particularly concerning that nearly three-quarters of those detained in mental health hospitals are girls and young women." Andy Bell, interim CEO, Centre for Mental Health
Nearly three-quarters of children detained under the Mental Health Act are girls, according to a new report from the children’s commissioner.
In her annual report, the commissioner, Dame Rachel de Souza, says that of the 869 detentions of children under the Mental Health Act in 2021-22, 71% were of girls. She describes the gender inequalities as “stark and worrying.”
The report also notes that waiting times from referral to starting treatment have increased. Although the average wait is 40 days, some children are waiting as long as 80 days for treatment.
De Souza called on the government to have a “clear-eyed focus on the specific needs of children” when it comes to investment: “It’s clear that mental health support for children across the country is patchy, despite some good progress made by the NHS in the years leading up to the pandemic.”
As demand for NHS children’s mental health services has increased following the pandemic, de Souza warned that 48% of children who need care are not able to access it.
The report says: “As the number of children in need of mental health services surges, there is concern that existing NHS service capacity and infrastructure may not be able to cope with the additional pressure.”
It warns of an increasing number of children with mental health difficulties who are being admitted to settings outside of mental health hospitals, such as acute wards: “These children are hidden from view as they do not appear in any official statistics, but research suggests that over 10 times as many children are being deprived of liberty in this way in 2023 as in 2017-18.”
The commissioner’s office carried out new analysis of children’s mental health services and waiting lists in England, which showed there were 1.4m children estimated to have a mental health disorder in the financial year 2021-22. Of those, less than half (48%) had at least one contact with children and young people’s mental health services (CYPMHS) and just over a third (34%) had at least two contacts.
The report states that the NHS managed to cut average waiting times from 57 days in 2017 to 32 days in 2020-21, but that in 2021-22 the wait increased to 40 days. There was a lot of regional variation, however, from a 13-day wait in NHS Leicester City to an 80-day wait in NHS Sunderland.
The commissioner also looked into the quality of children in inpatient mental health wards and identified some wards where children did not have access to any activities and only a few hours of education. The report calls for the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) to roll out mental health support teams to every school by the end of 2025.
It also says that the government’s major conditions strategy, which is set to replace the 10-year mental health plan, must have a core focus on children and look at the range of mental health support available.
Andy Bell, interim CEO at the Centre for Mental Health, said: “The commissioner’s report reveals stark and worrying gender inequalities within the children and young people’s mental health system. It’s particularly concerning that nearly three-quarters of those detained in mental health hospitals are girls and young women.
“Government and services must consider ways to embed gender and age-appropriate approaches within mental health services and put this discrimination to an end.”
Ollie Steadman, policy and campaigns manager at the charity Mind, said that the mental health needs of young people were increasing fast: “Despite the need for support continuing to rise, young people are still left facing an agonising wait in a system that cannot keep up with demand, and the UK government’s response so far has just not been good enough.
We are concerned to see that young people’s waiting times for mental health treatment have increased in the past year. It is now clear from numerous sources that mental health problems amongst children and young people are on the rise, and that we need to do more both to tackle problems at root and to provide fast, effective treatment for those who need it. It’s also disturbing to see the gender disparity in numbers detained under the Mental Health Act, and we would like to see the reasons for this investigated.