Children’s community mental health services need a root and branch review, the government has been told, amid concerns the strategy to deal with post-pandemic surge in youngsters requiring support is grossly inadequate.
North Yorkshire County Council’s director of children and young people’s sevices Stuart Carlton said its ongoing concerns over the lack of available support had been highlighted to the Department for Education.
Mr Carlton said increasing the amount of help for children with mental health issues ranked alongside child exploitation and online safety as the most significant challenges his colleagues were facing.
He was speaking at a meeting of the authority’s children and young people’s scrutiny committee a year after the NHS announced it was rapidly expanding children’s mental health services to offer support teams in schools to almost three million pupils by 2023.
At the time, the NHS said by intervening in mental health issues early it was hoped to prevent problems escalating into serious concerns.
Earlier this year the committee heard mental health services for children in the county and elsewhere were struggling to cope with an “exponential growth in demand” due to the isolation and upheaval of the pandemic, compounded by factors like pressure experienced by children on social media platforms.
In February, Tees Esk and Wear Valley NHS Trust bosses told the scrutiny meeting its community-based mental health team (CAMHS) was treating more than 2,500 children across the county.
They said referrals to its services for issues such as eating disorders had risen from about 100 a month at start of pandemic to more than 300 a month during 2021.
Four months on, a youth support worker told the committee the waiting list for CAMHS had risen to 18 months, which was not a sufficiently timely reaction to what children needed.
She said: “The biggest challenge we face on the ground is mental health. I cannot overestimate how challenging it is. Pretty much all the young people we work with have some element of mental ill health.”
When asked about a timeframe for getting mental health support teams into schools, Mr Carlton said the authority had told government officials the scheme was too being implemented too slowly and the ambition needed to be to get mental health teams available for all schools.
He added: “I just don’t see how that’s going to happen. I have called nationally for a fundamental CAMHS review because it is not working. It needs significant funding and significant review and enacting clearly across the whole of the country.”
Mr Carlton said the authority was providing support to schools through mental heath training while working with North Yorkshire NHS bosses to reassess what was needed from the service and how it could be modernised.
He said there had been promising collaborative work with the NHS, but financing extra support for children would be “very challenging”.
Mr Carlton said: “We can see through the pandemic increased demand. The services are probably feeling a bit overwhelmed and overstretched and it’s an area of absolute focus.
“Any interaction with a child from a professional is a mental health opportunity. However, we need enough capacity for specialist support when it is required.”