For years, child and adolescent mental health services in Britain have been largely forgotten victims in the crusade to streamline health services. Doctors, activists and politicians have all expressed concern over the effectiveness of the system, now rapidly heading towards a crisis point. Spending has been cut and services have been stretched to breaking point, all while thousands of children across the country are in desperate need of help. The government’s refusal to take this issue seriously has resulted in a 50 million cut to funding for the children’s mental health service since 2010. Although the government has pointed to a £7 million investment to increase the number of psychiatric beds available, their approach to caring for people suffering from mental illness has been described as a ‘national disgrace’ by the charity Young Minds.

Government cuts have forced more than 60 per cent of the councils in England and Wales to freeze or slash their budgets for children’s mental health services, a move considered disastrous by many mental health experts. Although government reports have repeatedly highlighted major problems regarding all aspects of mental health care for young people, politicians are yet to act on the stark warnings each report brings. A report published on the 5th of November 2014 by the Health Select Committee announced that the safety of young people was being compromised by a serious shortage of inpatient care facilities. In some areas, the demand for beds is so high that adult wards and even police cells have been used to house seriously vulnerable and often distressed young people.

Following an outcry on social media in November last year after a 16-year-old girl was held in a police cell for two days until a hospital bed could be found, Home Secretary, Theresa May announced a series of reforms to the mental health system. These reforms would prevent mentally ill young people from being detained in police cells, ensuring they are placed in a health-based facility designed to meet their needs. The practice of using police cells as a substitute for a hospital bed is not uncommon, with 236 under-18s held in this manner in 2013. Such extreme measures only serve as further evidence of the inadequacies plaguing the system, leaving it struggling to function.

Although doctors have repeatedly cited the importance of early intervention treatment, all aspects of outpatient care have been devastated by the impact of the cuts. Sarah Brennan, Chief Executive of Young Minds, said: ‘Children and young people’s mental health services have been chronically underfunded for decades. The latest round of cuts will add to the devastation of local services and compound the struggles of children and young people and their families’. Waiting times are rising, often stretching to months and in some areas services have been cut altogether. The significant regional variation concerning mental health services results in many patients having to travel significant distances for care. Difficulty in accessing these basic forms of treatment not only puts young people in danger but also results in an increased burden on adult services in years to come.

The majority of outpatient care is now funded by local authorities, resulting in huge funding discrepancies affecting the quality of care. Worryingly, the majority of local authorities have cut their funding for mental health services significantly. In the most extreme case, Birmingham City Council cut their funding by 94 per cent, arguing that mental health care was ‘primarily an NHS responsibility’. The move sparked widespread controversy, with doctors in Birmingham warning the cuts would lead to a failure to protect and support the most vulnerable members of society. The failure of local authorities to acknowledge their responsibility towards children and young people shows a dangerous level of ignorance regarding the seriousness of the crisis. Their actions have paralysed a system already in chaos while providing no alternative means of mental health care.

The government’s refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of child and adolescent mental health issues is not only dangerous, but incredibly shortsighted. Over 50 per cent of lifetime mental health problems manifest themselves before sufferers are 14. Therefore reducing mental health services for children to such a crippling extent is not only an attack on their childhoods, it is an attack on their futures too. At a time when three children in every classroom suffer from a diagnosable mental health problem, the decision to ignore a crumbling mental health system puts thousands of lives in danger. Cuts to mental health services only serve to provide short-term cost-cutting measures, ignoring the growing demand for a functioning mental health service.  Young people are being harmed by the system designed to help them. As long as local authorities and the NHS continue to fight over where responsibility lies, the crisis in our mental health system will continue.



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