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The government must act to end this child mental health crisis

Children have been particularly hard hit by mental health cuts, with 150 turned away from the care they need every single day. This Saturday campaigners meet to demand action not just warm words from government.

Samantha Wathen
26 September 2019
Dr Louise Irvine speaking at an event to mark the loss of the 200 children who take their own lives each year
Dr Louise Irvine speaking at an event to mark the loss of the 200 children who take their own lives each year
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Keep Our NHS Public

The government has repeatedly committed to “parity of esteem” for both physical and mental health. Sounds good, but it is not borne out by either the latest official figures or the overall experience of those affected – with children some of the worst affected amongst people struggling with mental ill health.

2018 saw the highest rate of recorded suicides in almost 20 years, according to newly released figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). 6,507 suicides were registered in 2018, an increase of 11.8% on 2017 figures alone, and the highest since 2002. Suicides among young people (those aged 10-24) have reached a 16-year high. The rate for young females under 25 has risen to its highest level in nearly 40 years. Warm words will not bring back the hundreds needlessly lost to suicide who, with better funding and provision of services, may well have been saved.

Earlier this month, to mark World Suicide Prevention Day, representatives from Keep Our NHS Public, Health Campaigns Together and Mental Health: Time for Action laid out 200 pairs of shoes in Westminster to represent the 200 school age children that tragically take their lives in the UK every single year. This is a shameful legacy.

This Saturday 28th September Keep Our NHS Public, Health Campaigns Together and Mental Health: Time for Action will be hosting a Mental Health Crisis Summit. Shadow Health Secretary Jonathon Ashworth, the film director Ken Loach, service users, clinicians and members of the public will be attending, and will pool ideas and resources and develop a charter to help inform meaningful and lasting change.

The appalling increase in the mental ill health of young people comes against a background of years of deliberate underfunding of the NHS Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) which began during the early years of the coalition government in line with their austerity policy, along with deliberate de-funding of the NHS and public services more generally. By 2017, a third of all CAMHS teams faced cuts or closures. As a direct result, according to the NSPCC, 150 children are being denied access to mental health treatment every single day.

The 2018 Children’s Commissioner report asserted that Children and young people have been disproportionately affected when it comes to a lack of mental health spending. The spending relative to adults has decreased:

“.. a good proxy for parity of spending would be to aim for 20% of all mental health spending to go on children. We are currently nowhere near this. At present, children’s mental health accounts for only 6.7% of community mental health spending. Adult mental health spending is roughly 15 times the spending on children’s mental health. If we look at this within the context of [NHS Clinical Commissioning Group] CCG budgets; 13.7% of current CCG spending goes on overall mental health spending. Broken down, adults get about 12.8% of CCG overall spending, and children get about 0.9% of overall spending. In very broad terms, raising children’s mental health spending to about 3% of CCG spending – thereby trebling it as a proportion of CCG spending – would bring about parity.”

A chronic lack of funding and inpatient beds means patients (including young children) are too often sent hundreds of miles away from their homes and families to receive treatment. According to the latest figures, 587 children were sent out of area for mental healthcare in the last year alone.

This is despite the fact that in 2017 the then health Secretary Jeremy Hunt made the following commitment:

“...no patient should be sent away from their family and friends for treatment when they are seriously unwell. It shouldn’t happen for physical health and we shouldn’t accept it for mental health... [I am] personally committed to ending the practice by 2020”.

Rachel Bannister founded the campaign group Mental Health: Time for Action after her own daughter was hospitalised 300 miles away from home:

“I had no idea that this lack of continuity of care would lead to an admission that nearly cost my daughter her life. Was it not for a senior manager at NHS England who listened to my concerns and helped me get my daughter transferred back home from the hospital in Scotland, I may well be one of the many families enduring a long and painful wait for an inquest.”

Empty promises are nothing less than an insult to service users who have suffered or to the friends and families left behind after a tragedy. Despite the government’s repeated insistence that they are committing record funding to the NHS and mental health services, mental health trusts in England have actually suffered budget cuts in real terms of just over 8% each year since 2011. The NHS has also lost nearly a third of all mental health beds since 2010, and 6800 (15%) of mental health nurse posts have gone.

Local council funding per child has also been cut by over a third since 2010, analysis published by a range of children’s charities in February this year found, leaving thousands of children in socially deprived areas at risk of abuse, criminal exploitation and mental illness. This is especially concerning when the proportion of children living in relative poverty is estimated to hit a record 37% by 2023.

This government has monumentally failed to protect the most vulnerable in society, and every life lost must strengthen the resolve of campaigners to demand an end to their policies of neglect.

If you are struggling to cope, please call Samaritans free 24 hours a day on 116 123 email jo@samaritans.org or visit the Samaritans website to find details of the nearest branch.

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