When Alfreda Boyd died in 2017, her family was devastated. “She was 13, two months and five days when she passed,” her mum, Gail, said.
Her younger sister, Takiyah Rose, who had been excited to join her big sister at secondary school, was hit especially hard by the loss. In the months that followed, the 11-year-old began self-harming.
“It was pretty desperate,” Boyd said. “As a parent, you know when your child is desperately, desperately unhappy.”
But when she tried to find help for her daughter, she faced a long, confusing wait for counselling – a story that is symptomatic of the problems facing young people in Birmingham as waiting lists for vital mental healths services have rocketed to more than 500 names.
Despite the fact Takiyah’s case was classed as urgent by counsellors, it still took three weeks for her to receive therapy.
“You are increasingly desperate while you’re waiting, wondering whether this could take a turn for the worse,” Boyd said. “You just don’t know.”
It wasn’t the first time the family had struggled to get urgent mental health support. When Alfreda, who suffered from the serious blood disease sickle cell anaemia, reached out for help in coming to terms with her condition, she was left waiting ten months for an appointment with a clinical psychologist. Her first session came just six weeks before she died.
Takiyah was finally seen by counsellors at Birmingham’s Open Door Counselling (ODC), an NHS-funded early intervention counselling service for 12 to 25-year-olds.
“It made a marked difference,” Boyd said. “I definitely saw an improvement in her, especially in her levels of emotional stability.”
According to ODC chief Carmel Mullan-Hartley, a lack of funding means there are currently 500 young people on the service’s waiting list.
While non-acute cases can expect to wait up to six months to see a counsellor, urgent clients dealing with issues such as self-harm or eating disorders face a wait of around two weeks after being referred.
Counsellors have condemned the existence of an urgent waiting list altogether. “I really struggle with the waiting list ethically and morally,” Mullan-Hartley continued. “This isn’t OK. The longer anyone is left with mental health problems, the more complex they become.”
Some young people on the waiting list begin harming themselves during the delay for support, she added.
Mental health services for under 25’s in Birmingham are provided by the city’s Forward Thinking Birmingham programme, which commissions services with NHS funding and is led by the Birmingham Women’s and Children’s NHS Foundation Trust. In February, a Care Quality Commission report rated the trust’s specialist community mental health services for children and young people “inadequate”.
Counsellors at ODC have accused the programme of leaving frontline staff “constantly fire-fighting” due to a lack of funding, poor transparency around financial plans and a resistance to requests to meet bosses.
“We are funded for 85 hours of counselling a week, which is really nothing,” she said, adding that even 200 hours “wouldn’t be biting into it fully’.
“They keep sending us more and more clients and we tell them we need more money to do the work,” Mullan-Hartley continued. “They know what the waiting list is like.”
The situation became much more critical in 2015 when the mental health partnership extended ODC’s remit from 12-to-18-year-olds to include people up to the age of 25 without boosting the service’s budget, the chief executive said.
Last year, the counselling service was forced to let go of 10 counsellors due budget woes. “I just couldn’t afford to pay those counsellors,” Mullan-Hartley added.
Birmingham Edgbaston MP Preet Gill - who met with counsellors at ODC to discuss the issues - said: “There are crises happening in these waiting lists and young people are at risk.”
“Nobody should have to wait that long for a service – this is public money. There needs to be transparency. We need to make sure that where the need is most, that is where the money is being directed.”
The Labour MP continued: “To hear today that an organisation providing an amazing service for so many young people cannot get a meeting with the chief executive [of Forward Thinking Birmingham], cannot get a meeting with the commissioner, is really struggling to get information - that’s not right on any level.”
In response to the claims, Forward Thinking Birmingham’s chief operating officer, Tim Atack, said the mental health provider had been working with ODC since the partnership was launched in 2016.
“We recognise that as a mental health care provider we need to meet the needs of all of our service users and get them the right help at the right time.
“The demand for mental services across the city continues to grow at a rapid pace and we are working closely with Open Door Counselling and our commissioners to secure the additional funding that is needed to meet the increased demand.”