young mental healthChildren and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) have been high on the government’s agenda in the past week, but planned investment and reform – and more – must be delivered, if the problems besetting services are to be tackled, says Mental Health Today editor Dan Parton

When Nick Clegg announced on March 15, in a trailer for last week’s Budget, that £1.25 billion was to be spent primarily on CAMHS, it wasn’t so much pulling a rabbit out of a hat but an entire warren. With austerity set to last for at least another 4 years, and CAMHS having been repeatedly squeezed in recent times, the announcement of such a large tranche of funding was as welcome as it was surprising.

Clegg said the money would mainly be spent by the NHS on helping more than 100,000 young people. This will include introducing waiting time standards for children accessing services for the first time and ensuring specialists in children’s talking therapy will be available in every part of the country, by 2018.

All that sounds great. But the government wasn’t finished – it followed up by publishing a government taskforce report which set out a blueprint for improving CAMHS in the next 5 years. This includes changing the way services are commissioned so that care is based around the needs of children and their families and they can get the right support from the right service at the right time; and continued support throughout teenage years into their early 20s to avoid a cliff-edge of lost support at 18.

This is, pretty much, what many people – service users and those who work in children’s mental health services – have been calling for for many years. It is a very welcome and large step in the right direction.

But whether it will be enough to solve the myriad problems in CAMHS is another matter. For instance, in some areas in the past 5 years CAMHS services have been decimated – Birmingham City Council had cut its CAMHS budget by a whopping 94.6% since 2011, according to research last year by YoungMinds – and that will take a long time and a lot of resources to put right.

Moreover, the Health Foundation has recently found that – despite a dearth of data - there were huge problems in accessing care alongside rising demand for mental health services to treat and support young people. 

For instance, last year a lack of available beds within local mental health services in some parts of the country meant young people had to travel 50 miles to access the right treatment and support. Similarly, less than 40% of local areas offered specific services to help children and young people experiencing a mental health crisis and in urgent need of care. 

These are deep-rooted problems and whoever forms the next government will have a huge job to ensure that the taskforce’s recommendations are implemented effectively and that the committed funds are used to the best effect to ensure that situations such as those described above are eradicated. Widespread reform will be needed. Experience has told to us not to get over-excited when government announcements such as those in the past week are made, because it is a long way from a minister saying something will happen to improvements in services occurring on the ground.

However, the recent statements show welcome progress and provide an indication that, at last, children and adolescent mental health is now a priority for politicians and the much hoped-for reform is on its way. Hopefully, more reforms – and funding for them – will be forthcoming from the next government. It will be needed because children’s mental health problems continue to rise and not addressing them carries not only a financial cost in terms of services used, but, more importantly, a high human cost for the individuals concerned – now, and in their adult futures – which cannot be ignored.