‘Creaking’ mental health care keeps children waiting years
Vulnerable children with mental health problems are being forced to wait for up to three and a half years for assessments and almost two years for treatment, a Times investigation has found, revealing a system that is “creaking at the seams”.
The number of referrals to child and adolescent mental health services increased by more than 6 per cent between 2013 and last year, according to data from 26 mental health trusts, which also showed that children were being sent hundreds of miles from home owing to a lack of hospital beds.
The Freedom of Information request from this newspaper’s Time to Mind campaign asked for the longest waiting times since 2012 between being referred for support and being seen for an initial assessment. The Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, which also covers Kent and Hampshire, said the longest waits in Kent were 169 and 176 weeks — almost three and a half years.
The trust admitted the waits were “unacceptable”, though it added that the average waiting time had improved from 19 weeks in 2013, longer than the recommended maximum of 18 weeks, to nine weeks last year.
The South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust said that the longest waiting time was 725 days — almost two years — while the South West Yorkshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust said the longest was 595 days, or almost 20 months. The London trust said that average waiting times for assessments were 25 days, but acknowledged “pressures” on child mental health services, calling for “increased investment in specialist inpatient services”. The South West Yorkshire trust did not provide average times.
Asked for the longest waiting times between being assessed and first receiving treatment, the South London and Maudsley Trust cited one case where a child waited 657 days, or almost two years, while the Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust said one child had to wait 493 days. The average waits at the trusts were 24 and 119 days respectively.
The 26 trusts each saw an average of 6,415 referrals last year — a total of more than 150,000 children — compared with an average of 6,009 the year before.
They were also asked to cite examples where children had to be sent to or from other NHS trusts due to a lack of inpatient beds in their local area. The request revealed that a child patient in Somerset was sent almost 300 miles to Middlesbrough, a patient in Portsmouth could only be found a bed 240 miles away in Stockport, and a patient in Croydon was sent 280 miles to Northumberland.
Gary O’Hare, a director at the Northumberland trust, which took in 42 children from other areas last year, said: “Needing to use an inpatient service a long way from home is very difficult for both families and the young person. It can also make planning for care outside of hospital more difficult.”
The investigation also found more than 140 examples last year when children had to be placed on adult wards because of a lack of available beds for children.
The investigation reinforces calls from The Times for greater emphasis on early intervention for young people with mental health problems. The manifesto also calls for “sufficient inpatient places” for children and for an end to the practice of “taking them on to adult wards or being sent miles from home”.
Sarah Brennan, chief executive of the charity Young Minds, said: “Children’s and adolescent mental health services are creaking at the seams as they are being hit with increased referrals at the same time as cutbacks to their services.”
Norman Lamb, the care and support minister, said: “It’s completely unacceptable for children and young people to wait years for treatment sometimes hundreds of miles from home — we wouldn’t accept this for physical health.”
He said that the government was investing £1.25 billion for improved care and a maximum waiting time of 18 weeks for mental health treatment.
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