A record number of children and young people are seeking help for mental health problems in England, after the impact of two years of Covid restrictions.
Latest NHS figures show ‘open referrals’, the number of under-18s either undergoing mental health treatment in the NHS or waiting to start, was 420,314 in February.
This is a 54 per cent rise in the number of young people seeking help compared to the same time in 2020, pre-pandemic.
Experts warned that Covid has exacerbated mental health conditions like anxiety, depression and self-arm among children and that NHS services could be overwhelmed by rising demand for help.
Lockdowns have previously been blamed for damaging young Briton’s mental wellbeing by disrupting routines, decreasing social contact with friends, providing no escape from an unfavourable home environment, and excessive screen time.
There are also fears that many more troubled children are not included in the statistics with their mental health problems not yet having reached a level where they can be referred for specialist help.
Experts warn the impact of the Covid lockdowns has exacerbated mental health problems among children and young people as treatment lists reach record highs
What to do if you’re a parent who needs help for their child
If your child is struggling and needs some help, you may be feeling really worried and unsure where to start. Remember that you and your child are not alone. There are services, professionals and organisations that can help you, and information about how to access them.
Trying to find the right help for your child and finding your way around different services can be really tiring at times. Remember to look after yourself as you go – and to remind yourself that you’re doing your best and it’s not always easy.
QUICK TIPS FOR ACCESSING HELP
Your local GP can discuss concerns about your child’s mental health, and could refer them to other services, such as CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services).
You could access counselling through CAMHS and other NHS services.
Speaking to professionals can sometimes feel daunting, and it might feel difficult to find the right words to explain what’s going on or what help you think your child needs.
Parents in similar situations have found that the tips below can help.
1. Make a note of your concerns
Before speaking to a professional, make a note of your concerns and the times you have noticed particularly worrying behaviours or feelings. You can do this really simply by making a list on your phone. You can then take this with you to appointments to give the professional a clear sense of your child’s situation, and to support any requests for referrals.
2. Explore local services
If you’re on a waiting list for help, explore whether there are services available locally that you might be able to access in the meantime. Your child might also be able to get more immediate online support from organisations like The Mix and Kooth. You can find other online services and helplines at the bottom of this page.
3. Try talking to other parents
As you find your way around local services, try talking to other parents who have been through this, or speak to any friends or family who might be able to advise you about where to get started. For example, if you know anyone who works in mental health support, they might have a good idea about what’s available locally.
4. Follow up after the appointment
Where possible, follow up by email after appointments – for example with teachers or other staff at your child’s school – to confirm what’s been agreed. Then check in a week or two later to find out what’s happened. This is a good way to keep things moving.
Olly Parker, head of external affairs at mental health charity Young Minds, told The Guardian said the record numbers represented an ‘unprecedented crisis’ in children’s mental health.
‘The record high number of children and young people receiving care from the NHS tells us that the crisis in young people’s mental health is a wave that’s breaking now,’ he said.
This February’s total of 420,314 open referrals for NHS mental health for under-18s is the highest since record’s began in 2016.
The figure is a 147,853 rise compared to pre-pandemic figures and has grown by 80,096 in the last year alone.
Mr Parker added that while it was positive so many children suffering from mental health problems were seeking help for their condition, the demand could prove unsustainable, as many young people could still be suffering in silence.
‘The rise in the number of young people seeking help from the NHS is relentless and unsustainable,’ eh said.
‘Over the past two years young people have experienced isolation, disruption to their education and reduced access to support, including from counsellors and GPs.
‘All of these things have massively impacted their mental health, but these figures are only the tip of the iceberg and will continue to rise.’
There are also concerns a number of young Britons suffering from mental are not getting the help they need as they don’t meet the threshold to get help from the NHS.
A survey of just over 1,000 GPs last month by charity stem4 found some children, even those who are self-harming, are not considered sick enough to get treatment.
In one case, a crisis team in Wales would not immediately assess the mental health of an actively suicidal child, who had been stopped from jumping off a building earlier that day, unless the GP made a written referral.
Nihara Krause, a consultant clinical psychologist and founder of stem4, said children were not getting the help they need.
‘Teachers and GPs say that children in mental health distress are either being rejected in record numbers because their difficulties do not meet the high threshold for treatment, or they are stuck on long waiting lists,’ she said.
The shocking state of NHS child and adolescent mental health services (CAMS) has long been criticised with too many children waiting too long to get help.
In February, NHS statistics revealed 37 per cent of those on waiting lists in 2020/21 were yet to start treatment by the end of the financial year.
A postcode lottery for access to treatment also exists, with children in some parts of the country waiting an average of just six days, while others were forced to wait 81.
NHS England’s national mental health director, Claire Murdoch, said the pandemic had ‘inevitably’ taken a toll on the nation’s mental health.
‘As these figures show, demand continues to skyrocket, with a third more children treated in February this year compared to February 2020,’ she said.
She added that the NHS was responding to this rising demand by expanding mental health teams in 4,700 schools and colleges and setting up 24/7 mental health crisis telephone support services for all ages, which now receive 20,000 calls a month.