depressionMore than a quarter – 28% – of children who were referred for specialist mental health treatment in 2015 did not receive a service, including some with life-threatening conditions, according to new information collected by the Children’s Commissioner for England.

In one trust 75% of referrals were not considered to meet the threshold for treatment. Worryingly, 14% of the 3,000 children about whom information was obtained, who had life-threatening mental health conditions – including children who had attempted suicide or serious self-harm, and those with psychosis or anorexia nervosa – were denied specialist support.

Sixty NHS trusts in England were asked to provide information about child and adolescent mental health provision and 48 responded.

Of 28 trusts that submitted information on waiting times for mental health treatment, 4 reported average waits of over 100 days and in 1, the average wait for children who made it onto the list for treatment was 200 days.

Although children and young people can experience a variety of difficulties in attending mental health appointments, 35% of trusts that responded to the question about restricting access to services for children who missed appointments, said that they would do so.

Children and young people are asking for:

An enhanced role for schools in identifying early symptoms of mental ill health

Reduced waiting times between referral and appointments with a specialist and for better support while on the waiting list

Services that are closer to their home and on neutral territory such as in a park

Texts and phone calls rather than letters to encourage young people to attend first appointments

Reducing the stigma of having a mental health condition

Providing drop-in services for young people where they can talk about things that worry them.

Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England said: “Children and young people consistently tell me that they need better mental health support but the information we have received paints a picture of provision that is patchy, difficult to access and unresponsive.

“Behind the stats are countless stories of children and young people in desperate circumstances not getting the vital support they need.

“I’ve heard from far too many children who have been denied access to support or struck off the list because they missed appointments. I’ve heard from others whose GPs could not manage their condition and who had to wait months to see a specialist whilst struggling with their conditions."

Jenny Edwards, CEO of the Mental Health Foundation, expressed her shock at the report and called for action to improve the situation. “Today we have yet more evidence that we are failing to prioritise our children’s mental health. Children presenting with suicidal symptoms and being turned away is a shocking reality that requires action. While we need to improve access to services, this alone will not solve the total problem. We must put preventative steps in place. Putting mental health onto the curriculum so students learn about steps to take, teaching children mindfulness techniques, cracking down harder on bullying and introducing whole school mental health strategies are just some of the steps that would make a massive difference for children. We also need to address the sources of pressure, like the ever increasing burden of testing and exams.  

“Slow action is costing lives. The Mental Health Foundation is working with others, including our Coalition for Children and Young People's mental health to call for change now.”