Mental health referrals in English schools rise sharply

NSPCC says number of schools seeking help from NHS mental health services up by more than a third

The number of referrals by schools in England seeking mental health treatment for pupils has risen by more than a third in the last three years, according to figures obtained by the NSPCC.

The charity found that the number of schools seeking professional help for students from NHS child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) was 34,757 in 2017-18, equivalent to 183 every school day. In 2014-15, there were 25,140 referrals.

More than half (55%) of referrals over the four-year period came from primary schools.

In almost a third of all referrals for which data was available, the child in question was denied specialist CAMHS treatment. While, in some cases it might not have been necessary, the NSPCC believes under-resourcing is also a factor.

It says community and voluntary services such as Childline are picking up the pieces in many cases and the government must plough more cash into them.

Alana Ryan, the NSPCC policy officer, said: “It is worrying there are so many children being deemed as needing some kind of mental health support and whether or not that is mental health support that meets the clinical support threshold, it’s still a need.”

She said even where referrals were accepted, waiting times were often long.

“Mental health support shouldn’t be limited to a medical model,” said Ryan. “We need to make full use of community resources which champion early intervention.”

The NSPCC sent freedom of information requests to 66 NHS trusts, to which 53 responded with at least some of the data sought. It found that 123,713 referrals had been made since 2014-15. While some of the rise since then is likely to be a result of growing awareness among teachers, it also reflects a growing mental health crisis in young people.

At least 10% of children and young people are thought to suffer from anxiety, depression, self-harm, eating disorders or other mental health conditions. Soaring numbers of under-18s have sought NHS care for such problems over the past decade but, according to Public Health England, only a quarter who need help get it.

The NSPCC’s Childline service has reported a 26% increase in the number of counselling sessions with children about mental health issues over the past four years, with some saying they only received specialist support when they reach crisis point.

“When children come through to us, they speak about things like exam pressures, social media and not being able to get into specialist services, asking that we intervene on their behalf,” said Ryan.

The NSPCC suggests the high number of referrals from primary schools could reflect a lack of funding and services to support children in those settings.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said members had reported a surge in the number of patients with emotional and behavioural difficulties, often after being rejected by CAMHS. It said funding cuts were leaving schools “exposed and unsupported”.

Sarah Hannafin, a senior policy adviser on mental health and wellbeing for the school leaders’ union NAHT, said headteachers were concerned CAMHS was setting treatment thresholds too high. “This means that early intervention by specialist mental health staff is not happening,” she said.

The government has pledged to introduce four-week maximum waiting times for CAMHS but it has been criticised because they will only apply to up to a quarter of England by 2022-23.

Esther Rantzen, the Childline founder and president, said: “We must make sure that Childline is adequately funded so it isn’t left vulnerable and can be there for the children who have nowhere else to turn.”

A government spokeswoman said it was investing an additional £300m to provide quicker support to children. “We know we need to do more which is why we have extended our schools and NHS link pilot to deliver training in 20 more areas of the country this year,” he said. “This will improve links between up to 1,200 schools and their local specialist mental health service.”


Haroon Siddique

The GuardianTramp

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