Families seeking reform of the Child and Adolescent Mental Health services (CAMHS) say it was not until they went looking for help, that they realised that mental health supports and a functioning service were largely non-existent.
Families for Reform of CAMHS told the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health that children across Ireland are being failed and families left alone without adequate support at a time when they need it most.
A series of reports last year from the Inspector of Mental Health Services and the Mental Health Commission highlighted serious issues with CAMHS.
Among the problems were very long waiting lists and serious staffing shortages in some CAMHS teams.
The organisation told the committee that while the Government and the Health Service Executive have acknowledged service deficits, families have seen no real reform or real commitment to bring about change.
The organisation represents 820 members. It was joined at the committee by two other parents, Grainne Morrison and Emer Deasy.
Ms Morrison described the system as a postcode lottery and “a disaster”, with some families forced to seek private treatment costing thousands of euro.
The organisation said that the system is overwhelmed and poorly governed with inadequate staffing and resources.
It has put the waiting lists at around 4,400 children waiting for first time CAMHS appointments.
It told the committee that therapeutic supports are extremely hard to access and children are often only offered medication and that families have been told that their child would be discharged if they did not accept medication.
The organisation said that just 12% of CAMHS patients have a care plan and a key worker.
It added that 85% of its members with an autistic child said that having a diagnosis of autism has negatively impacted the service and support received by their child in CAMHS.
It said that anxiety or depression was just dismissed as being part of autism, rather than acknowledging and offering support for the actual mental health issues being experienced.
Some members are being advised by their GPs, teachers, social workers and other experts not to disclose a diagnosis of autism as it was widely recognised as a barrier to gain help from CAMHS.
The organisation told the committee that 81% of its members who have children with intellectual disabilities have no access to any mental health service.
It said that since September 2022, children with intellectual disabilities are no longer accepted by CAMHS but are to be seen by the specialist service known as CAMHS-ID.
The organisation said that the service largely does not exist and there are only four or five partial teams when there should be 16.
Spokesperson for the organisation, Hannah Ní Ghiolla Mhairtín, told the Committee there are families left without support when weaning their child off serious medications.
She said a lot of members “are very concerned that denying access to autistic children to CAHMS is a way of reducing the waiting lists”.
Ms Ní Ghiolla Mhairtín recounted how they were told by the HSE and Department of Health “that a lot of the problems of waiting lists for CAHMS arose once autistic children were accepted into the service”.
She also noted that there is little support for children struggling with eating disorders.
She said that parents are willing to remortgage their homes to get their children to a private psychiatrist, as there are none publicly available.
CAHMS have none available and it takes up to a year to see a private psychiatrist, which is “too long when you’re in an emergency situation”, she said.
This leaves those families “with nothing”.
Róisín Shortall, health spokesperson for the Social Democrats, said that there was an urgent need for CAMHS to be regulated independently as people could not rely on the HSE to be upfront.
Collecting up to date waiting list data for CAMHS has been affected by the industrial action taken by the trade union Forsa, following the introduction of the HSE recruitment moratorium last October.Uncategorised