Young people are facing long waiting times and unequal access to mental health services, a review by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) has said.
The commissioner said this could be “putting young people’s lives at risk”.
The review found nearly 40% of specialist child and adolescent services in England needed improvement.
Alice Gibbs, who was diagnosed with anorexia at the age of 12, said a lack of access to specialised services had had a long-term effect on her recovery.
She waited six months to see a mental health professional. “Knowing that we had to wait for that help and things were only getting worse was scary,” she says.
She received treatment in Leicester for several years, but it was later recommended that she get specialist treatment. At the time, the nearest specialist unit for eating disorders was in London.
“It’s a complete postcode lottery,” she says. “I was 16 years old, and apart from being really physically unwell, I was mentally unwell. I didn’t want to be away from my family.”
Fragmented support system
The CQC’s Dr Paul Lelliott said the “system’s complexity and fragmentation must be overcome”.
“There are many people out there working to make sure that children and young people who experience mental health issues are offered caring support. Their dedication is to be celebrated.
“However, we must also address those times when a child or young person feels let down or not listened to and make sure the same level of support is available.”
While the report could not specify exactly how long young people were waiting, an investigation by the BBC’s World at One programme using Freedom of Information requests found children were waiting up to 22 months to see a mental health professional.
Of the nine trusts that replied, the worst was Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, which had an average wait of 16 weeks in 2016-2017.
Dr Andrew Molodynski from the British Medical Association said: “Gaining access to necessary specialist care remains a serious concern in places. It is a need the government must address as a priority.”
The review’s findings echo issues raised by NHS England in its Five Year Forward View for Mental Health, published in February. Problems identified included long waiting times, inequalities in access to services and a lack of support while young people were waiting for care.
NHS England’s head of mental health Claire Murdoch said after “years of underinvestment” there has been a 15% increase in spending on young people’s mental health services in the past year, “far outstripping the overall rise in mental health spending”.
“Without a doubt, after years of drought, the NHS’ mental health funding taps have now been turned on.”
‘It defined my teenage life’
Alice Gibbs made the hard decision to stay in Leicester for non-specialist treatment. Now 22, she says she’s a lot better.
But she is still receiving mental health care and thinks this may not have been the case if she had received better, more specialised care as a teenager.
“I’m lucky because I have had all of that support but it’s frustrating to think that realistically it could be a lot better than this,” she says.
Alice says she has learned how to manage her eating disorder “rather than fix it”.
“With eating disorders, it feels like it’s defining you. And it definitely has with me – it defined all of my teenage life.”
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