Urgent action is needed to plug the gaps in children and young people’s mental health support, report warns

Children and young people in England are still facing significant gaps in mental health support despite a steep rise in mental need, warns a new report by a Coalition of over 240 organisations led by former Minister for Mental Health, Sir Norman Lamb.

The Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition’s Members’ Report 2021 is based on the unique insights gathered from the Coalition’s member organisations, as well as from young people and parents.

The report finds that although mental health problems have been rising among children and young people, from a rate of one in nine in 2017 to one in six in 2021, mental health support is not keeping pace with the scale of change and investment that is needed.

The Covid-19 pandemic has placed additional pressures on mental health support services, with many of the Coalition’s members from the voluntary and community sector reporting a surge in demand for their services. Coalition member No5 Young People, an organisation providing counselling services to young people based in Reading, reported a 197% increase in referrals between 2020 and 2021. At the same time, many of these organisations are facing significant financial challenges.

Services that provide mental health support in education, the community and through health are vital sources of support for babies, children and young people, but the report finds the many shortcomings these settings face. These settings have been blighted by a lack of ambition in creating transformational change on a large scale and a lack of investment to create the true scale of change that is needed.

The scale and speed of the roll out of additional support to schools and colleges through Mental Health Support Teams (MHSTs) is slow and many children with mental health needs are still falling through the gaps in support. Too often, children and young people are also punished for behaviours that are linked to their mental health. It is now time that mental health and wellbeing is placed at the heart of educational recovery plans.

A lack of priority and investment in services that provide early intervention support in communities has left children and young people with nowhere to turn when mental health needs first start to emerge. There has been widespread support for the establishment of a national network of early support hubs to provide easy-to-access, drop-in mental health support for young people, on a self-referral basis.

A young person interviewed as part of the research said: ‘It’s kind of like a massive dream for me, I would love to have a massive business where everyone can have the help they need…or if schools and colleges, even universities, where I can send professionals to have one to one support.’

Children and young people who need urgent support still struggle to get the support they need from NHS specialist services as a result of high thresholds, long waiting times, workforce shortages and rising referrals. The Government should re-affirm its commitment to the NHS Long Term Plan and ensure that the recent funding settlement for the NHS can be used to deliver commitments for children and young people’s mental health.

Sir Norman Lamb, Chair of the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition, said: For too long, babies, children and young people have struggled to get the support they need with their mental health. We know that children and young people’s mental health is not improving, in fact it has been deteriorating in recent years, and the pandemic has heightened the many challenges that young people face. We must not underestimate the severity of the situation.

The recent Budget also missed a crucial opportunity for the Government to re-affirm their commitment to children and young people’s mental health and provide clarity for the future funding of mental health services. 

Whilst we recognise the investment that has been made in mental health support, our members are calling out for real change in the children’s mental health system. We can no longer keep putting a sticking plaster on the wounds of an inadequate system.

The Government frequently talk about ‘levelling up’ and improving opportunity for all. Now is the opportunity to act on their commitment and be ambitious in creating a mental health system that works for all babies, children and young people.”