A decent mental health service for all children is still a decade away as a 'chasm' remains between the current levels of Children and Young People’s Mental Health Services (CYPMHS) and what children need, according to the Children’s Commissioner for England.

In her third annual children’s mental health briefing, ‘The state of children’s mental health services’, Anne Longfield says that the NHS has made tangible progress in the provision of mental health services for children. However, the current system is still far away from adequately meeting the needs of all of the estimated 12.8% of children in England with mental health problems or the many more children who fall just below the threshold for clinical diagnosis. 

The report highlights that an extra £60m was invested in specialist children’s mental health services and an additional 53,000 children entered treatment. There has also been a particular improvement in eating disorder services, where the number of children accessing services has increased by almost 50% since 2016/17.

Yet, despite this over 3% of children were referred to services last year, only about one in four of children with a diagnosable mental health condition.

Key findings

The Children’s Commissioner’s research shows on average children are waiting just under eight weeks (53 days, down from 57 days a year ago) to enter treatment. Where a waiting time target has been introduced – currently just for eating disorders – waiting times are much shorter and 80% of children accessed eating disorder services within four weeks.

Treatment varies hugely across the country. There are four CCGs where more than 90% of children referred entered treatment: Southwark, Croydon, Corby and Lambeth. In Southwark, 93% of children referred accessed CYPMHS, and they have a target for this to be 100% by 2020. But there are also 10 CCGs where more than half of children referred to CYPMHS don’t go on to enter treatment, including Knowsley where 64% of children referred to CYPMHS have their referral closed before treatment.

Children account for 20% of the population, but only 10% of total mental health spending. On average, the NHS spends £225 for every adult and £92 for every child.

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said: “ More children are seeking help for their mental health and the Government need to make sure that help is available. We are still a decade away from a decent mental health service for all children. After years of Government announcements on children’s mental health, children’s mental health remains the poor relation of NHS spending, receiving a fraction of the money invested in adults. Most areas are still spending less than 1% of their budget on children’s mental health services, and the postcode lottery of care means some areas are years ahead of others in improving services.

“It is important to recognise and welcome the real progress that is being made. More children are receiving the help they need and even more will in the future. But the Government urgently needs to commit in the next Spending Review to providing help for 100% of children, not just 20%. If not, thousands of children with mental health problems will continue to suffer and become adults without getting the help they need."