Extra money and pressure to reform have failed to improve access to mental health services for children and teenagers, auditors have warned.
A senior official at Audit Scotland said that “serious concerns have existed for years”, and that action was now more urgent given the impact of the pandemic on young people.
Antony Clark, a director in the public spending watchdog, said in a blog post that that the number of children waiting more than a year for help from NHS child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) had trebled.
A report from 2018 found fragmented systems made it difficult for troubled children and young people to secure the support they needed, he said. A Scottish government task force called for reform a year later, insisting children needed support earlier to prevent the chances of normal mental health difficulties escalating.
He added: “The picture today is similar to 2018, despite significant investment. More children and young people are waiting over 18 weeks to start treatment in specialist CAMHS — up from 26 per cent in 2017-18 to 33 per cent in 2020-21.”
Clark told The Times that little is known about what happens to children who are turned away by the NHS.
“Almost one in four referrals to specialist CAMHS were rejected in 2020-21,” he said. “But we still don’t have national data to tell us if these young people accessed alternative services and what difference this makes. Guidance on embedding support for mental health in schools was issued just last week, but it’s too soon to tell how well this will work.”
Clark said that the full effect of the pandemic on the mental wellbeing of young people was not yet apparent. Figures issued last month showed that self-harm among the young in Scotland was at its the highest level for 14 years.
A staff survey by the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Scotland found that more than 84 per cent of CAMHS psychiatrists felt they did not have enough resources, while 44 per cent felt that services were poorly staffed.
Helen Smith, the chairwoman of the college’s CAMHS executive committee, said one of the problems was that early intervention support — which helps children before they need CAMHS — had not been available due to funding restrictions.
The Scottish government’s recovery plan for the NHS says that waiting lists for CAMHS will be cleared by March 2023 — a target Smith described as “extremely ambitious”.
She said: “It is going to require more investment to meet that target. Other than what has been recently announced we have not heard what support the government is further putting into CAMHS to meet the target.”
The recovery plan also includes recruiting 320 CAMHS staff and creating a community wellbeing service.
Source: The Times