A record 1.4 million children and young people sought NHS help for mental health problems last year, amid concern that under-18s are struggling with issues including about money and their education.
The number of school-age children being referred to child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs) has undergone an “explosion” in the last three years, soaring by 76% since 2019, NHS figures show.
That year 812,070 under-18s in England were referred to Camhs for treatment of anxiety, depression, eating disorders and other psychological problems.
But far more – 1,425,194, the highest number on record – were referred during 2022. That was the second year in a row in which referrals topped 1m, amid the continuing impact of Covid on young people’s wellbeing.
The disclosure sparked concern that mental health turmoil could be becoming “the new normal” among under-18s.
The figures came from an analysis of NHS Digital data by Young Minds.
Separate data collected by the charity show that the main reasons parents call their helpline are that a child is struggling with anxiety, self-harm, anger or aggression, problems with school, including them refusing to attend, and behaviour management.
“Young people today are facing a unique combination of challenges, including the consequences of the pandemic, the cost of living crisis and academic catch-up, which are taking a toll on their mental health,” the charity said.
Worries about money are the most common reason why young people (58%) suffer damage to their mental health, but 27% say Covid is still affecting them, it added.
“These new figures paint a devastating picture of how sharply the crisis in young people’s mental health is escalating.
“This explosion in referral numbers has led to wait times being as long as two years in some parts of the country,” said Tom Madders of Young Minds.
It is concerned that the government has abandoned plans to publish a 10-year strategy to improve mental health and instead has included that alongside a number of physical health problems in its promised major conditions strategy.
Victoria Tzortziou Brown, the vice-chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said that while the jump in referrals was “clearly concerning … increasing rates of referrals to Camhs could also signify greater societal openness to discussing mental health and a reduced stigma in asking for help”.
She also said that young people do not always get the support they need from Camhs, with some being refused treatment altogether.
“Currently, access can be patchy across the country, referrals are sometimes bounced back, and patients may have to wait too long to get the help they need.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We’re continuing to invest in mental health services for children and young people with an additional £2.3bn a year on overall mental health services by 2024.
“This investment means an additional 345,000 children and young people will be able to access NHS-funded mental health support, including through the vital mental health support teams we are rolling out to schools and colleges across the country.”