young mental health The next government will face a tough challenge in a time of austerity to improve mental health services for children and young people, a report from an independent charity has claimed.

The Health Foundation’s report analysed the quality of NHS care over this parliament, and found a dearth of data on the quality of care in children and adolescent mental health services. What information was available suggested 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.

Other findings from the report included: 

The government’s approach to assessing and managing performance of NHS services has gone backwards and needs to be overhauled

A shift is needed from a focus on a narrow set of targets to a broad set of measures, including healthcare providers’ long-term outcomes, their approach to learning and quality improvement, and their contribution to the local health economy

There are unacceptable and worrying gaps in national quality data. Large areas of NHS care have little or no national data at all, allowing unwarranted variation to flourish and hindering attempts to improve services. For example, very little is known about safety in primary care, where 90% of all patient contacts take place. 

The report covered: safety, person-centred care, mental health, waiting times as well as an analysis of how the NHS compares internationally.  

The government has recently announced measures to try to improve services, such as a commitment of an additional £250 million a year for mental health, which will be focused on children and young people, as well as launching a taskforce report on child and adolescent mental health, which sets out an ambitious vision for tackling these problems. However, this progress is against a backdrop of an 8% fall in real terms in mental health funding over this parliament, according to research published by the BBC and Community Care.   

Richard Taunt, director of policy at the Health Foundation, said: “Over the past five years the NHS has done extremely well to maintain quality in many areas in the face of a significant financial squeeze. However, the government’s approach to assessing the quality of NHS care has gone backwards: a focus on outcomes quickly reverted to a focus on a narrow set of targets. 

“To support improvement in the NHS, it is critical that whoever forms the new government in May makes a break from a target-driven style of performance management to focus on a broader more balanced way of assessing quality.”  

Felicity Dormon, senior policy fellow at the Health Foundation, added: “Undoubtedly extra funding and the taskforce’s recommendations represent progress for children’s mental health. The question is whether this is enough to treat our children and young people in need. 

“Honest conversations will need to be had about the trade-offs to be made by investing in children’s mental health over other services – but the human and economic cost of failing to improve the quality of care for children and young people with mental health problems will be enormous for individuals and for society.”