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Record number of children and young people referred to mental health services as pandemic takes its toll

Sep 23, 2021, 02:02 AM by RCPsych Press Office
Record numbers of children and young people are being referred to mental health services for crisis and non-crisis care, as the toll of the pandemic on the country’s mental health is revealed in new analysis by the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Record numbers of children and young people are being referred to mental health services for crisis and non-crisis care, as the toll of the pandemic on the country’s mental health is revealed in a new analysis by the Royal College of Psychiatrists. 

Eighteen months after the first lockdown and after warnings from the mental health sector about the long-lasting mental health impact of the pandemic, the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ analysis of NHS Digital data found that:

  • 190,271 0–18-year-olds were referred to children and young people’s mental health services between April and June this year, up 134% on the same period last year (81,170) and 96% on 2019 (97,342).
  • 8,552 children and young people were referred for urgent or emergency crisis care between April and June this year, up 80% on the same period last year (4,741) and up 64% on 2019 (5,219). 
  • 340,694 children in contact with children and young people’s mental health services at the end of June, up 25% on the same month last year (272,529) and up 51% on June 2019 (225,480). 

The Royal College of Psychiatrists is calling on the new education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi MP, to make children and young people’s mental health needs a top priority. He must ensure that all schools have clear plans in place to respond to pupils’ mental health needs and increase investment in staff training to improve the roll-out of Mental Health Support Teams.

Dr Elaine Lockhart, chair of the Faculty of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said:

“These alarming figures reflect what I and many other frontline psychiatrists are seeing in our clinics on a daily basis.
“The pandemic has had a devastating effect on the nation’s mental health, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that children and young people are suffering terribly.
“Early intervention is key to recovery. Schools have a critical role to play in this and the education secretary must do all that he can to prioritise pupils’ mental health.
“Children’s mental health services must also be properly funded and properly staffed if we are to treat the ever-growing number needing mental health care. Without investment, we run the risk of many more needing crisis help.”

The Royal College of Psychiatrists is also calling on the government to invest in 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.

Sarah (not her real name), whose teenage daughter relapsed into anorexia during the pandemic, said:

"The pandemic has been devastating for my daughter and for our family. She has anorexia and was discharged from an inpatient unit last year, but the disruption to her normal routines and socialising really affected her recovery. She was spending a lot less time doing the things she enjoys and a lot more time alone with her thoughts.
"Unfortunately, she relapsed, becoming so unwell she was admitted to hospital and sectioned. After 72 days in hospital with no specialist eating disorder bed becoming available, we brought her home where I had to tube feed her for ten weeks. 
“My daughter urgently needed specialist help for this life-threatening illness, but services are completely overwhelmed because so many young people need help. It's a terrifying situation for patients and families to be in." 
While more children than ever before are being treated by eating disorder services, an unprecedented number are also waiting for treatment. There have also been significant increases in the rates of probably mental disorders in children and young people. In 2020, 16% of children aged 5 to 16 years were identified as having a probably mental disorder, compared with 10.8% in 2017.

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