Western Morning News

UK ‘must wake up’ to child mental health crisis

- JEMMA CREW

MENTAL health services are “nowhere near” meeting the needs of hundreds of thousands of children struggling through the coronaviru­s pandemic, the Children’s commission­er has warned.

Anne Longfield said there have been some improvemen­ts but a lack of ambition from the Government is hindering progress. It is the commission­er’s fourth annual report on the state of children’s mental health services in England.

She said the research, which largely covers the year up to March 2020, reveals a system without the “necessary capacity or flexibilit­y” to respond to the coronaviru­s pandemic. The “cocktail of risks and stresses” associated with the outbreak, affecting education, friendship­s and home life, appears to have taken a “very heavy toll” on some children, she added.

A large NHS study in July 2020 found that one in six children have a probable mental health condition, up from one in nine in 2017.

Ms Longfield said current lockdown and school closures are causing more damage to some children’s well-being which could last “potentiall­y for years to come”. She said the Government must set out how schools can reopen in the coming weeks, adding: “In the longer term, the Government’s ‘building back better’ plans must include a rocket boost in funding for children’s mental health, to expand services and eliminate the postcode lottery.

“As an absolute minimum, all schools should be provided with an NHS-funded counsellor, either in school or online. We have seen how the NHS has risen to the scale of the Covid crisis for adults. We owe children, who are suffering the secondary consequenc­es of the pandemic, a mental health service that provides the help and support they need.”

Ms Longfield said provision before the pandemic struck was already insufficie­nt, access was improving but not fast enough, and spending, while rising, was “highly variable” and inadequate. Before the pandemic, referrals to children’s mental health services rose by 35% while the number of children accessing treatment increased by just 4%. She said a postcode lottery remains around local areas’ spending, waiting times, access, and how many children are referred to services and go on to receive support. But she said improving NHS specialist services is just part of the solution, and is calling for a broader system making use of schools and the voluntary sector.

The Government’s plan to roll out NHS-led counsellin­g in schools to 20-25% of areas by 2023 is not ambitious enough, she believes.

She added: “The sad truth is that, in spite of progress, services are still nowhere near meeting the level of need and hundreds of thousands of children are being left without help.”

Imran Hussain, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, said the Government must “wake up” to a mental health crisis threatenin­g to “engulf” a generation.

He said: “Nearly a year of lockdowns, fear and anxiety, disruption to education and uncertaint­y about the future has added to the already shocking numbers of young people who have nowhere to turn for profession­al help... young people are struggling at home without their usual support networks, having to cope with the pressures of remote learning, family health fears, loneliness and pressure in the home - all the while being bombarded by social media and depressing headlines.”

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