UK children who need mental health services face ‘postcode lottery’ – The Guardian

Children needing mental health care are forced to endure waits of up to 18 month for treatment while four in 10 psychiatric services for young people are failing, according to the health service regulator.

The Care Quality Commission (CQC), after surveying mental health care for children in England, said that in one case young people were forced to wait as long as 493 days for treatment and 610 days for family therapy. Elsewhere, services were setting their own targets for how quickly children should be seen, the CQC said, which varied wildly depending on a postcode lottery.

Dr Paul Lelliott, the lead for mental health at the CQC, praised the dedication of NHS mental health care staff but added: “We must also address those times when a child or young person feels let down or not listened to and make sure the same level of support is available to each and every one of them.”

Labour said the report showed an “abject failure of children and young people” who were in urgent need. The Department of Health said it was investing in improving the services, but said it recognised more work was needed.

The research found that crisis care for suicidal young people or those with severe mental health problems was sometimes available only between 9am and 5pm, with night-time care provided by adult psychiatrists who lacked expertise in children’s mental health.

Some children and young people were “waiting an extremely long time to access the specialist care and support they need”, it said. In one part of the country, a child would be seen within 35 days, but could have a wait of 18 weeks in another area.

“The demand for inpatient beds outstrips availability in some parts of the country where fewer beds are available,” the report found. “As a result, some children and young people are being admitted to adult wards as there are no beds available in wards for people their age.”

NHS England’s mental health director, Claire Murdoch, said the health service was now making progress addressing the waiting times, but said there had been “years of underinvestment” in young people’s mental health services.

Murdoch said there had been a 15% increase in funding, far outstripping the overall rise in mental health spending, which meant three-quarters of young people with eating disorders needing urgent care were now provided with that care within a week.

“Without a doubt, after years of drought, the NHS’s mental health funding taps have now been turned on,” she said. “NHS England has also been explicit about the scale of unmet need, which recent improvements have inevitably only been able to begin to tackle.

“It’s going to take years of concerted practical effort to solve these service gaps – even with new money – given the time it inescapably takes to train the extra child psychiatrists, therapists and nurses required.”

The research examined more than 100 CQC reports of specialist child and teenage mental health services, rating 39% as requiring improvement and 2% as inadequate when it came to treating children quickly enough.

Children and young people “are repeatedly referred to different parts of the system after several services tell them they fail to meet the threshold for support”, the report said, although it stressed that when specialist services were eventually accessed, the quality of care was good.

The shadow mental health minister, Barbara Keeley, called the findings “a scandal”, which was the result of government neglect. “Labour will continue to call on the Tory government to invest in and ringfence mental health budgets as Labour pledged at the general election, so that money reaches the underfunded services on the front line,” she said.

Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat former care minister in the coalition government, said the report showed “a moral imperative for change”.

Charities and local authorities said the findings showed the urgency of the need for shake-up of mental health care. The Local Government Association said the report revealed “the fragmentation, complexity and variation of a service that investment alone cannot solve”.

The Children’s Society chief executive, Matthew Reed, said there were too many children suffering as a result of the slow service, with many more not even deemed eligible for treatment. The charity’s own research found 30,000 children being turned away from mental health services every year and not receiving any support or treatment.

A Department of Health spokesperson said: “Our commitment to improving children’s mental healthcare is shown by our additional £1.4bn investment, more trained staff and more children and young people accessing care. But there is more to do, which is why we commissioned this review and will publish a green paper on children and young people’s mental health by the end of the year.”

The department said there would be significant expansion in the service provision by 2021, with at least 70,000 additional children and young people receiving treatment.

Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, last year admitted child and adolescent mental health services were “possibly the biggest single area of weakness in NHS provision at the moment” and Theresa May has said she is also particularly focused on improving the services, calling it one of the key “burning injustices” in UK society.

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