The number of referrals to specialist children’s mental health services has increased by 26 per cent over the last five years, new research has found.
The study, by the Education Policy Institute (EPI), also suggests as many as 55,800 children referred for mental health services were then turned away, a figure that represents around one in four of all referrals.
The most common reason for referrals being rejected was that children’s mental health conditions were “not serious enough” to meet the eligibility criteria for treatment. Among those excluded by threshold criteria were young people who had self-harmed or experienced abuse.
The study follows a recent survey of 8,000 adults, where one in three said their mental health deteriorated while waiting for an appointment.
According to EPI researchers, the overall referral rate of under 18s represents a “substantial increase” and rejection rates have “failed to improve substantially over the last 5 years”.
Most providers do not follow up with children who have been unable to access treatment, the report states. The outcomes for these children are often unknown, with no consensus as to who is responsible for supporting them.
Additionally, many areas of the country lack sufficient alternative services for young people who have not been accepted for treatment. As many as a quarter of local authorities have phased out vital support services, including school-based mental health services, family counselling and support for those living with domestic abuse.
Some children are waiting far longer than the government’s new standard of four weeks for an appointment after receiving a referral. The median waiting time for children to receive an initial assessment in 2017-18 was 34 days, and 60 days to receive treatment, according to the report.
However, many children still face unacceptably long waiting times, and there are great disparities across providers. The longest wait for treatment reported by mental health service providers in England ranges from one day to 188 days, depending on area. On average, children in London experience the longest wait for specialist treatment at 64 days.
Commenting on the report, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson told the BBC: “We are transforming mental health services for children and young people with an additional £1.4bn and are on track to ensure that 70,000 more children a year have specialist mental health care by 2020-21.
“We are improving access to mental health services through schools with a brand new dedicated workforce, as well as piloting a four-week waiting time standard in some areas, so we can better understand how to reduce waiting times.
“We are completely committed to achieving parity between physical and mental health as part of our long-term plan for the NHS, backed by an additional £20.5bn of funding per year by 2023-24.”