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32,000 children wait years for mental health treatment

Tens of thousands of children and young people are waiting years for mental health treatment, the office of the children’s commissioner has warned.

Dame Rachel de Souza warned that some children were waiting a “significant portion of their young lives” for the support they needed, and called for “the right early support” to cut demand for health services.

In 2022, a Schools Week investigation found creaking mental health services leaving schools to pick up the pieces.

Data obtained by de Souza’s office using its legal powers shows 949,200 children and young people had active referrals to mental health services in the 2022-23 financial year. This can’t be compared to previous years due to a change in methodology.

Of those with active referrals during that year, almost 305,000, or 32 per cent, entered treatment and 373,000, or 39 per cent, had their referrals closed before accessing treatment.

But 270,300, or 28 per cent, were still waiting to receive their second contact with services at the end of the year.

Those still waiting at the end of the year waited on average 142 days for their second contact.

Huge regional variation in support

But some waited far longer. The analysis found 32,200 had waited at least two years. Among those children, the average wait time was 1,361 days, more than three years.

The analysis also reveals wide variation in average wait times between different areas, ranging from 147 days in Sunderland to just four days in Southend. Younger children waited far longer than teenagers, but far more of those in their teens were referred in the first place.

Dame Rachel de Souza

Children with suspected autism had the longest average wait time – at 216 days – while those with other neurodevelopmental conditions waited on average 111 days and those with obsessive compulsive disorder waited 86 days.

“Children are still waiting far too long to access the support they need, and for too many children the speed at which they can access support is still down to the luck of where they live,” said de Souza.

“With the right early support, many children would not need access to mental health services.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL school leaders’ union, said “we have to get better both at providing access to specialist services needed by children and young people who are suffering from mental health problems, and dealing with the root causes of those mental health problems”.

“At the moment, we are, as a society, too often failing to fulfil our responsibility to protect and support the next generation.”

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