This site is intended for health professionals only

A national disgrace: NHS fails to treat child mental health

sad teenager 3x2

sad teenager 3×2

A whole generation of children is being failed by mental health services, say GPs who struggle to access specialist help for their patients.

GPs are finding their referrals increasingly batted back, with three in five of those made to specialist child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) resulting in no treatment at all.

GPs report that local trusts are raising thresholds for care, with some only accepting patients who have attempted suicide or are experiencing symptoms of very serious mental illness. Cuts to mental health funding mean services have struggled to cope with a 40% increase in GP referrals since 2012. This has meant that young patients are being directed to local charities or school counsellors rather than receiving specialist care.

And this is all occurring as rates of suicide rise in the UK; it is now the leading cause of death among men aged 20 to 34 years.

The Government insists it is ploughing more investment into CAMHS but experts say it may be too little, too late to address a crisis that is causing significant suffering and storing up major problems for the future.

Crude criteria

A Pulse Freedom of Information request to 15 mental health trusts in England reveals that 61% of referrals are not treated, up from 56% in 2012, with the figure as high as 80% in some areas. More than a third of children referred are not even assessed, the investigation found.

The proportion of GP referrals assessed in 2015 was 64% – down from a high of 89% in 2013.

Seven out of the 15 trusts showed marked reductions. For example, at Leeds and York Partnership NHS Foundation Trust the proportion treated fell from 42% to 26%, and at Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust it fell from 46% to 20%.

how gp referrals to camhs are handled box 580x229px

how gp referrals to camhs are handled box 580x229px

The figures suggest the care of children with mental health problems is much worse than experts had thought. A report last year by the children’s charity NSPCC found that four out of five children referred to child mental health services – including those referred by other professionals as well as GPs – were being treated.

But GPs tell Pulse that crude thresholds applied to the CAMHS referrals criteria are excluding many of those they refer.

Alarmingly, these criteria include only accepting referrals when patients have previously attempted or are at risk of suicide, are experiencing psychotic symptoms or are self-harming. Examples include:

  • A GP in the South-West saying patients in his area ‘have to be suffering from psychosis or a serious suicide attempt before CAMHS will see them… Self-harming is not a criteria they accept – it is “dealt” with by the school nurse’.
  • A GP in the North-West saying patients ‘must be actively suicidal’ to get help.
  • A Midlands GP saying a referral must be for a ‘severe’ mental health problem such as ‘suicide attempts or hallucinations; very little else is seen’.

Dr Dominique Thompson, a GP in Bristol with special expertise in young people’s mental health, says the findings show the system is ‘failing the next generation’.

She says: ‘We risk our CAMHS becoming a source of national shame if they continue to be so poorly resourced.’

Other GPs also highlight worrying cases where they are concerned about potential harm not only to the child themselves but to others – but still cannot get CAMHS to treat them.

Dr Karen Cox, a GP in Bristol, says: ‘Recently all referrals seem to get bounced. They’ve included children who self-harm, a child who was physically abusing his mother and a child with severe night terrors after the loss of his father. All of them were advised to contact local charitable organisations.’

Experts say the refusal of referrals is distressing for GPs as well as damaging for their patients.

Dr Faraz Mughal, RCGP clinical fellow for young people’s mental health and a GP in Solihull, says: ‘GPs are at the frontline of the NHS and treat so many young people with mental illness, and are trained to identify their needs. If they think further expert input is required then GPs really need to be supported in that.’

And having patients bounced back puts even more pressure on already overburdened GP practices.

Dr Mughal says: ‘It puts GPs in a difficult situation because often they are the person who knows the child and the family best; it leaves them having to try to manage it themselves where those resources just are not available.’

Despite government promises of ‘parity of esteem’ between physical and mental health, all this is happening against a background of significant cuts to the mental health budget. In April 2014 Pulse revealed most CCGs were applying 20% larger cuts to CAMHS than to other healthcare services.

Increasingly vulnerable

Between 2013/14 and 2014/15, referral rates to CAMHS increased five times faster than the service’s workforce.

The Government-commissioned Mental Health Taskforce report in February said one in 10 appointments had been cancelled due to staff shortages, while specialist CAMHS were being run by ‘junior staff who lack the requisite skills and too few therapists with the necessary training’.

And it comes at a time when experts believe children are increasingly vulnerable to stress and mental health problems from societal pressures, with a House of Commons health committee inquiry highlighting the growing issue of ‘cyber bullying’ and an increasing focus among young people on celebrity status. These effects have been compounded by economic austerity and intense competition for future employment.

There are slight signs of improvement, however. The Government’s taskforce on children’s mental health and well-being has pledged to get rid of the ‘tier’ system for referrals, so ‘there are more support structures that the children and family can access straightaway, to provide more community support’, says Dr Mughal.

Progress has also been made to incorporate Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) into children’s mental health services, with an audit early in 2015 showing services employing IAPT had reduced assessment waiting times by 60%. And the GP Forward View commits the NHS in England to providing access to mental health workers for every GP practice – though there is little detail of how this will be funded.

In Scotland, the executive has promised an additional £150m for mental health services and new ‘mental health workers’ in GP practices.

And the Scottish Government recently responded to the increased demands on CAMHS by committing to more school-based counsellors to help children access support when they need it.

NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens has acknowledged the need for change. He told the NHS Confederation conference last month CAMHS was the ‘most creaking’ part of the NHS mental health sector. A Department of Health spokesperson says: ‘No child who needs help should be refused it. That is why we have introduced the first-ever mental health access and waiting time standards and are putting in a record £1.4bn to transform support for young people.

‘This investment is just beginning, so will be making an increasing difference in the years ahead – every area in the country has produced plans on how they are going to work together to make sure young people get support before they reach a crisis point.’

But some are sceptical about whether the money will materialise. Dr Phil Moore, a GP in west London and chair of the NHS Clinical Commissioners’ Mental Health Commissioners Network, says the funding must be ringfenced because ‘despite our commitment to better mental healthcare for young people, it has to be acknowledged that CCGs are dealing with a myriad of competing demands on budgets’.

Without such guaranteed funding, the overall picture will continue to be one of a system failing the most vulnerable in society.

Highs and lows of child mental health services

February 2011

The Government’s widens access to the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme with £400m of funding – including a pledge to extend the offer to children over the next four years.

April 2014

Pulse reveals many CCGs have cut funding for child mental health services, despite GPs reporting they already struggle to refer young patients to the appropriate services.

July 2014

Coalition Government sets up the children and young people’s mental health and well-being taskforce.

November 2014

A damning House of Commons health committee report demands the DH and NHS England ‘monitor and increase spending levels on CAMHS’ after finding it was ‘being cut or suffering insecure or short-term funding’ in many areas.

January 2015

NHS England’s own figures show a £50m real-terms reduction in spending on child mental health between 2010 and 2014.

March 2015

Government commits £1.25bn to CAMHS over the next five years – an extra £250m a year to 2020.

February 2016

Pulse survey reveals 47% of GPs believe access to CAMHS has worsened in the past year, with just 5% believing it had got better.

February 2016

Mental Health Taskforce recommends some 700 new mental health specialist GPs should be trained up and working in the NHS over the next five years, and that all GPs should receive ‘core mental health training’ by 2020/21. It sets an aim for ‘70,000 more children and young people to access high-quality mental health care when they need it’. NHS England commits an extra £1.4bn over five years to achieve this.

April 2016

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon promises to ‘transform’ mental health in Scotland with a £150m cash boost.

May 2016

Scotland appoints the first dedicated minister for mental health.


Visit Pulse Reference for details on 140 symptoms, including easily searchable symptoms and categories, offering you a free platform to check symptoms and receive potential diagnoses during consultations.