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Emergency mental health referrals for children rises by 53% in the past three years

The Royal College of Psychiatrists found a 53% rise in referrals to child and adolescent mental health services crisis teams in England since 2019/20

Psychiatrists have expressed alarm as the number of children referred to emergency mental healthcare has soared by more than 50% in three years.

Data analysed by the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP) found that there were 32,521 emergency and urgent referrals to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) crisis teams in 2022-23, up from 21,242 in 2019-20. The increase means more than 600 mentally ill children a week are deteriorating to such a state that they have reached crisis point.

‘It’s unacceptable that so many children and young people are reaching crisis point before they are able to access care. We cannot allow this to become the new norm,’ said Dr Elaine Lockhart, chairwoman of the RCP’s child and adolescent faculty.

‘Severe mental illness is not just an adult problem. The need for specialist mental health services for children and young people is growing all the time,’ she said.

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In 2022 alone, 1.4 million children were referred to CAMHS for treatment of anxiety, depression, eating disorders and other psychological problems. But as demand soars for children’s mental healthcare and support, experts in RCP say CAMHS teams are struggling to see or treat children quickly enough, leading to a 53% rise in emergency and urgent referrals.

While the college welcomed the government’s announcement last year, of an extra £5m to improve access to early support hubs for people aged 11 to 25, it said an extra £125m to £205m would be needed to establish hubs in every local authority, with running costs of at least £114m a year.

‘Ministers must take urgent action to provide targeted support to every child in need of mental healthcare and turn the tide on the country’s growing children’s mental health crisis,’ said Dr Lady Smith, president of the RCP.

‘We need to see the government focus on prevention and reversing the rising rates of mental illness, as well as ensuring sufficient resourcing of specialist services,’ she said.

As referrals reach an alarming point, the Department of Health and Social Care said it was determined to support children with their mental health and was investing an extra £2.3bn a year in NHS mental health services. ‘This funding will also help expand the number of mental health support teams in schools to reach at least 50% of pupils in England by the end of March 2025,’ said a spokesperson.