Soaring demand has plunged children’s mental healthcare into ‘crisis’ with one in 12 kids referred for help last year, a damning report reveals.

Dame Rachel de Souza, the Children’s Commissioner, said the challenges of modern life are placing an unprecedented toll on youngsters’ emotional wellbeing.

But she warned the NHS is ill-equipped to cope with the fallout caused by ‘harmful’ social media, a cost of living crisis and the pandemic.

It means those in need are forced to wait ‘far too long’ for care, during which time their fragile mental state is at risk of worsening.

Dame Rachel’s annual review says demand for children’s mental health services ‘continues to outstrip the availability of support’.

Many children are forced to wait for care with the demand for support outstripping the availability of help, the report warns  (stock image)

It shows nearly one million children and young people – 949,200 – were referred to Children and Young People’s Mental Health Services (CYPMHS) in 2022/23.

This is equal to 8 per cent of the 11.9 million children in England.

Of these, almost 305,000 entered treatment, but 270,300 were still waiting at the end of the year.

Furthermore, 372,800 (39 per cent) had their referrals closed before they even received any treatment and 32,200 waited for more than two years for their second contact from services.

Boys, younger children, and white children all wait longer periods of time for mental health support on average.

The analysis also uncovered geographical variations in waiting times across the country, from an average of 147 days in Sunderland to just four days in Southend.

The most common reason for a referral for mental health treatment is cited as anxiety.

Dame Rachel said this generation of children has experienced ‘uniquely uncertain and challenging times’, and highlighted that an increasing number are ‘exposed to the harmful impact of social media, cyber bullying, and online exploitation’.

‘I do not think it is an overstatement to speak of a crisis in children’s mental health and the services needed to support them,’ she said in the forward of the report.

‘For children who need it, support should be put in place quickly and locally: no child should be left on a waiting list for months or years.’

The NHS estimates that 1 in 5 children and young people aged 8 to 25 in England have a probable mental health condition.

Dame Rachel said: ‘For children and young people two years can be a significant portion of their young lives, so the long waiting times experienced by some children in this report can feel agonisingly long.

‘Children are still waiting far too long to access the support they need, and for too many children the speed at which they can access support is still down to the luck of where they live.

‘With the right early support, many children would not need access to mental health services.

‘We need fresh, long-term thinking when it comes to children’s mental and emotional health and wellbeing. Children need environments – both online and offline – where they grow up feeling happy, safe and supported, and aren’t left to feel like second class citizens when it comes to accessing mental health support.’

Commenting on the report, Olly Parker, head of external affairs at the charity Young Minds, said: ‘We’re in a mental health emergency and it’s heartbreaking so many young people are struggling to get the support they need.

‘This generation has grown up experiencing a unique set of pressures.

The NHS estimates that 1 in 5 children and young people aged 8 to 25 in England have a probable mental health condition (stock image)

‘When they reach out for help, young people are faced with a system stretched to breaking point.

‘Many experience long waits or are turned away because they’re told they’re not ill enough. The consequences of this can be devastating, with many becoming more unwell.’

The Children’s Charities Coalition – Action for Children, Barnardo’s, NCB, NSPCC, The Children’s Society – added: ‘Too many children and young people are becoming increasingly unwell whilst their names sit on a waiting list.’

An NHS England spokesperson said: ‘Latest figures show the NHS is treating more young people than ever before with 48 per cent more children and young people accessing support since 2019/20, and the health service is expanding this provision as quickly as possible within the current five-year funding arrangements to meet this rising demand.

‘But we know there is more to do which is why plans are also in place to ensure more than one in two pupils in schools and colleges have access to an NHS mental health support team by spring 2025 – significantly ahead of the original target.’

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