Research News

Children wait a decade for mental health support, report finds

BMJ 2016; 353 doi: (Published 08 June 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;353:i3199
  1. Helen Mooney
  1. London

Children and young people with mental health difficulties are forced to wait an average of 10 years between first becoming unwell and getting help, a report has found.1

An evidence review by the Centre for Mental Health charity found that only a quarter of school age children with a diagnosable problem received any intervention at all despite most parents of these children seeking professional advice. And it warned that, when children and families do seek help, they are “frequently confused by a maze of largely fragmented services and often face lengthy delays to get the help they need.”

The review found a “very mixed and confusing picture” of the current state of children and of young people’s mental health over time. “Increases in distress and demand for help have been noted by some specialist child and adolescent mental health services, schools, youth helplines and voluntary sector providers,” it said.

The report said that the most common mental health problems among children were behavioural problems, which severely affected one child in 20, and that, while boys were more likely to have mental health problems during their early years, girls were more likely to have emotional problems in teenage years.

It also highlighted an increased risk of poor mental health in children who are subjected to neglect and abuse, children who are bullied or who bully, and children whose parents have mental health problems. Groups with higher rates of poor mental health also include young lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, those in the youth justice system, and those who have been looked after by local authorities.

Lorraine Khan, associate director for children and young people at the Centre for Mental Health and the report’s author, said, “Childhood mental health problems are extremely common and can be very serious. They affect 10% of children each year and can cast a long shadow well into adult life.

“Good mental health is shaped very early on at the first spark of life. . . . Most common childhood mental health problems can be treated effectively. Early help is vital to have the best chance of success. Waiting for a child’s mental health to deteriorate until it hits crisis point causes untold distress and damage to their lives and carries a heavy social and economic cost.”

Khan and her colleagues called for “whole system ownership of and investment in children and families’ mental health, from the first spark of life through to early adulthood.” They also highlighted the importance of raising awareness and mental health literacy among families, schools, and young people themselves and of making help more accessible, more proactive, and more responsive.

Peter Hindley, chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ faculty of child and adolescent psychiatry, told The BMJ that there seemed to be “barriers at all levels and the author rightly calls for a whole system approach to change.”

He added, “Many of the problems are well known . . . the local transformation plans which were announced in 2015 and are currently being developed should address some of the concerns highlighted here. The major priority is to ensure that the funding that was promised to support the local transformation plans is used for this purpose. This report emphasises both the need and sense in doing so.”

In February the government endorsed the key targets for children’s and young people’s services proposed by the independent Mental Health Taskforce, which include a maximum two week referral for children or adolescents after their first psychotic episode.

Last month, however, the government’s investment in children’s mental health services came under scrutiny again, after the publication of a review of mental health services by the children’s commissioner showed that 13% of young people with life threatening conditions were not given access to specialist treatment.


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