A third of children referred to mental health services last year did not receive treatment, prompting calls for quicker rollout of school support amid fears existing services can’t cope.
A report from children’s commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza found the proportion of children whose referrals closed before treatment has increased for the first time since 2017-18.
NHS data published last year found the proportion of seven to 16 year old children with a probable mental health disorder had increased between 2017 and 2022 from 12.1 per cent to 18 per cent.
For older children aged 17 to 19, it rose from 10.1 per cent to 25.7 per cent.
de Souza’s analysis of the data also shows that of 1.4 million children estimated to have a mental health disorder, just 48 per cent received at least one contact with mental health services, and 34 per cent received at least two.
With the number of children needing mental health services surging, de Souza’s report warned of concern that “existing NHS service capacity and infrastructure may not be able to cope with the additional pressure”.
de Souza wants support teams in schools sooner
In 2021-22, 32 per cent of children who were referred did not receive treatment, up from 24 per cent in 2020-21 and 27 per cent in 2019-20.
But national figures conceal huge regional variation. The proportion of children’s referrals closed without treatment ranged from 5 per cent in East Sussex to 50 per cent in North Cumbria.
The report recommended that, given the “surging demand for mental health support” and increased waiting times, it was “vital that the Department for Health and Social Care rolls out mental health support teams to every school by the end of 2025”.
The government has said support teams will reach just 35 per cent of schools by this year. de Souza previously called for universal rollout by 2027, but has brought her demand forward in light of the latest data.
MPs have also previously urged the government to roll out the teams nationwide by 2027-28.
But last year, the DHSC said the rollout beyond the 2022-23 financial year was “contingent on future funding settlements”.
Last year, a Schools Week investigation found creaking mental health services leaving schools to pick up the pieces.
School leaders said they feared it would take a “Baby P” incident in their classroom to trigger proper support to deal with the “new normal” of heightened mental health issues among their pupils.
Surge in demand ‘concerning’
de Souza said she was “particularly concerned to see such a surge in demand for help”.
“It’s clear that mental health support for children across the country is patchy, despite some good progress made by the NHS in the years leading up to the pandemic. I want to see Mental Health Support Teams delivered in every school as soon as possible.”
de Souza’s team interviewed mental health patients, and found school was seen as “one of the main positives of life on the ward” for the majority.
However, “children also described wanting more education, as they only received a few hours a day, and more access to computers to be able to keep up with work from their home school – especially in the run-up to exams”.
In discussion with school and hospital leaders, “the importance of education for children’s recovery was keenly felt, and improvements were being made to ensure that the school and wards were aligned in how they worked with children”.
But there were “significant concerns raised about the challenges they had in securing education, health and care plans for children, even though it seemed clear to them that all the children in the setting would meet the criteria for having one”.
de Souza’s report said given the “vital role that schools play in shaping, identifying and addressing children’s mental health”, there “must be a mechanism for them to contribute to integrated care partnerships”, which are collaborative networks of service providers like health workers and councils.
The report reiterated a previous call for schools to become the fourth statutory safeguarding partner, alongside police, local authorities, and health.
Being a statutory member of safeguarding partnerships “would then enable them to feed into Integrated Care Partnerships”.