The charity Look Ahead said “limited capacity, staffing and wait times” were cited by all families it interviewed and found “these challenges of service delivery are real, exasperating and extremely damaging”.
Almost all patients reported poor access to crisis care services, with one saying it took several years before they could get help.
One parent said: “It was very clear from what the doctor had written that he [the child] has suicidal intentions and was planning for it. It kind of felt that at that time CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) were only interested if he attempted it, which obviously we didn’t want him to do.”
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The ten families interviewed for the report said their children routinely end up in hospital A&E departments when suffering a mental health crisis, while one parent said their child only received community-based support “after several chaotic years of suicide attempts, addiction and psychosis”.
Look Ahead chief executive Chris Hampson warned that challenges in NHS crisis care were a “ticking time bomb” for mental health services in the future as young people become vulnerable adults.
He said: “The NHS is doing all it can in impossible circumstances, but the result is a service that both costs more than it should and helps too few of those in crisis.”
“This research shows how much more needs to be done to redirect funds towards early intervention and prevention, in particular through intensive supported housing as an alternative to hospital. These are the community services that can help people well before they reach crisis point.”
Responding to the report, Gemma Bryne, policy and campaigns manager for charity Mind said the system was “failing too many young people who are seeking help because the NHS doesn’t have the capacity to treat them”.
“The result is thousands of young people left without the support they need, impacting their education, relationships with family and friends and their futures. The UK government faces a stark choice – invest in mental health services now or let down an entire generation,” she added.
The accounts come after The Independent revealed that between 900 and 1,500, children a week were waiting more than 12 hours in A&E during a mental health crisis, with some spending almost a week in busy emergency departments.
And a recent survey of senior A&E doctors by the Royal College of Emergency Medicine found more than half of the people questioned said local children’s mental health services were “poor or awful.”
In November, The Independent revealed that more than 20,000 children who should receive care from community mental health services were missing out each month.
The NHS doesn’t routinely publish waiting times data for general CAMHS services. However, statistics on targets for community eating disorder services show the number of children seen in the week following an urgent referral dropped to 68 per cent in the first quarter of 2022-23 – compared to 87 per cent in 2020-21.
Look Ahead’s report, launched in the House of Lords, noted that the NHS pays almost £10,000 a week for a child to be admitted to a mental health hospital, compared to £2,000 a week for a community alternative. It argued that community care was not only a cheaper option but had better patient outcomes.
Look Ahead has called for the NHS to implement promises for a dedicated national crisis support line for children which is appropriately staffed.
It also wants more specialist training for staff in A&Es in dealing with children with mental health needs and a “dedicated” area in every emergency department for those in crisis.