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Child mental health support pledge looks in doubt

A flagship pledge to get more youngsters access to mental health services is behind schedule and looks set to be missed unless rates are quickly increased.

The NHS’s 2019 long-term plan promised that by March 2024, at least an additional 345,000 children and young people up to age 25 could access support through either NHS-funded mental health services or new school mental health support teams.

However, a presentation by NHS bosses, seen by Schools Week, shows only about 234,000 extra children were getting support in October – a gap of 111,000.

This was about a third below target, with just five months to go at the time.

The presentation from NHS bosses stated: “We are behind where we planned to be … significant challenges remain, so it’s job begun, not job done.”

The news comes in the same week that analysis found a 50 per cent rise in the number of children being referred to emergency mental healthcare services in just three years.

Both issues are heaping more pressure on schools, which are increasingly left to pick up the pieces of stretched wider services.

‘We don’t have the resources’

Caroline Barlow, headteacher at Heathfield Community College, said schools “simply don’t have resource available to provide what is needed for our young people and yet expectations only seem to increase.

From almost all stakeholders we hear ‘the school should do more’ – the NHS must feel the same.”

Caroline Barlow

The NHS presentation to the Local Government Association’s (LGA) children’s and young people’s board shows it aimed to provide support for, in total, 1,068,481 under 25s by March.

This figure includes the level of youngsters getting support in 2020 – when the policy was implemented – as well as the additional target. By October last year, the total number being supported was 957,251.

The presentation broke down progress towards the target by both under 17-year-olds and from 18 to under-25s.

While the young adults target had been exceeded on occasions in previous years, it has fallen behind schedule. However, the children’s target has consistently lagged behind since 2020 (see graph).

The NHS refused to comment this week on whether they had increased support or why it was behind target, but said it is treating “more young people than ever before”.

“The health service is expanding mental health services as quickly as possible within the current five-year funding arrangements to help meet increasing demand, with plans in place to ensure more than one in two pupils and learners in schools and colleges have access to an NHS mental health support team by spring 2025 – significantly ahead of the original target.”

A third of promised policies implemented

Like education, the NHS is dealing with high vacancy rates. Retention rates for the children and young people’s mental health workforce also fell to below 80 per cent in 2022, the presentation added.

Schools Week investigations have exposed how suicidal children were being turned away from overstretched child and adolescent mental health services, with schools instead told to “keep them safe”.

Only a third of the 135 promised children’s mental health policies since 2015 have been implemented, analysis by the Education Policy Institute think tank found. For eight of those, it was unclear if any action had been taken.

Barlow said schools understand the pressure on the NHS, but added that unmet needs “do not disappear and manifests how young people present in schools.

A vast amount of resource is needed to create a sense of belonging through trusted adults, or to address the issues of absence through school avoidance due to issues of mental health and anxiety.”

Andy Bell, chief executive for the Centre for Mental Health charity, said the NHS has achieved a “great deal” on expanding services, but called on the government to “invest in these essential services” to meet rising demand.

The Department for Health and Social Care was approached for comment.

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