Claire Tyler writes: Children need better access to mental health care

Mental health care in this country needs radical transformation.  Both adult and children’s mental health services continue to be plagued by long waiting times, lack of access to treatment and chronic staff shortages. For children, the average wait between their first symptoms developing and being able to access treatment is estimated to be a horrifying 10 years. Once a referral has been made, The Children’s Society estimate that young people wait an average of 58 days until they are assessed and then a further 41 days until they begin treatment. 

In a recent survey, a thousand GPs across the country expressed their concerns about access to Children’s Mental Health Services. It found that 78% of GPs are worried that too few of their young patients can get treatment for mental ill-health and a staggering 99% of them feared that under 18 years old will come to harm as a direct result of these delays in care. 

For many of these children, the only way to access the care they need is for their mental health to deteriorate to crisis point or to turn to private care. In fact, almost two-fifths of GPs surveyed said they would recommend patients whose families can afford it to go private. It is completely unacceptable that we have such a growing divide between those who can pay for treatment and others who are left waiting.  Seventy years after the creation of the NHS, families should not be forced to pay for the mental healthcare their children so desperately need.  

The publication of the NHS Long Term Plan has provided an important opportunity to hold the Government to account over mental health provision. Last week I led a debate in the Lords on children’s access to mental health treatment and also spoke in a wider debate on the Long Term Plan.  In both debates, I was clear that without urgent action to enlarge the workforce, as well as sustained investment in social care and public health, the Plan would be destined to fail. 

That is not to say there is nothing to welcome in the Long Term Plan. As well as a focus on prevention, it contains some ambitious aspirations for improving mental health services, including increased funding and a target of ensuring that one hundred per cent of children needing specialist mental health care are able to access it. These are clearly steps in the right direction.   What worries me is less what the Plan contains and more what it does not.

For example, the Plan contains precious little detail of how the NHS will recruit and retain a workforce large enough to deliver 100% access for children’s mental health services. It has been estimated that to treat all children and young people with mental health problems we would need over 20,000 additional staff. This will be a huge challenge, given that the workforce is shrinking – there are 6% less child and adolescent psychiatrists in the NHS than there were 4 years ago.  Factor Brexit into the equation and it becomes clear that there will need to be a huge effort to recruit the staff needed to transform services.

This is why I asked an oral question in the Lords this week on whether the Government would consider funding a mental health careers campaign aimed at secondary school, college and university students.  By showing students, particularly in related subjects such as psychology, that they can have fulfilling careers in mental health professions, we can help build the workforce and improve mental health treatment for all who need it. I was promised a written response which I eagerly anticipate – but frankly I’m not holding my breath! 

* Claire Tyler, Baroness Tyler of Enfield, has been in the House of Lords since 2011, taking an active role in the areas of health and social care, welfare reform, social mobility, well-being, children and family policy, machinery of government and the voluntary sector. She is the Liberal Democrat member of the Lords Select Committee on Social Mobility, and co-chair of the APPG on Social Mobility