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Warning of mental health emergency as child referrals increase by more than 22%

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Published on June 7, 2022

The Scottish Children’s Services Coalition (SCSC), an alliance of leading providers of specialist children’s services, has warned of a mental health "emergency" and called for greatly increased investment as the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on the young become clearer. It notes that the mental health of children and young people is set to further worsen given the cost-of-living crisis, as more people are driven into poverty.

The SCSC has also warned of the devastating impact of cuts in public services on those with mental health issues, as outlined in the Scottish Government’s Resource Spending Review, with an estimated £3.5 billion spending shortfall by 2026/27.

The call comes as new figures published by Public Health Scotland today (7th June 2022), indicate that over the quarter covering January to March 2022, 9,672 children and young people were referred to specialist child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) for treatment. This includes issues such as anxiety and depression and represents a staggering 22.4% increase in numbers from the same quarter of the previous year when the equivalent figure was 7,902.

With already under-resourced and overstretched services facing overwhelming pressure due to increased demand, the SCSC has raised concerns over a potential “lost generation” of vulnerable children and young people whose mental health is being impacted by Covid-19.

Even before the pandemic, cases of poor mental health were at unprecedented levels with services in crisis, and there are a growing number of vulnerable children who cannot access adequate support. The pandemic and cost-of-living crisis have exacerbated this, with more children and young people driven into poverty, with the resulting impact on their mental health. This has led to unprecedented demand and backlogs, with services struggling to keep up.

In total, 5,016 children and young people started treatment at CAMHS during the period January to March 2022. This is an increase of 7.7% from the previous quarter (4,659) and sees an all-time high number of individuals beginning treatment. Just 73.2%  were seen within the Scottish Government’s maximum waiting time for the NHS of 18 weeks from referral to treatment (to be met by at least 90% of patients).

At the end of March 2022, a staggering total of 1,322 children and young people had been waiting for over a year for treatment.

In addition to increased investment in specialist CAMHS, the SCSC has called for greater workforce planning and a renewed focus of resources on expanded prevention and early intervention services, reducing the need for referral to costly specialist mental health services. It has also called for greater partnership working between the public, private and voluntary sectors as well as greater awareness of the services on offer, especially those at a community level.

A spokesperson for the SCSC commented:

“We have been warning for some time that we are facing a mental health emergency, with a potential lost generation of vulnerable children and young people whose mental health is being impacted even further by the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis.

“Adding to this are cuts in public services, which will impact especially on local government and the third sector, responsible for many of the preventative and early intervention services supporting those with mental health problems.

“Faced with such a perfect storm of factors, there must be a radical transformation of our mental health services, investing in specialist services and with a renewed focus on preventing such problems arising in the first place through early intervention.

“This is a crisis we can overcome, but as the country comes to terms with the biggest hit to its mental health in generations, it will require a similar energy and commitment to that demonstrated for Covid-19 if we are to achieve this and prevent many young people giving up on their futures.”

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