Rethinking our approach to children’s mental health

March 04 2022
Rethinking our approach to children’s mental health

Bristol East MP Kerry McCarthy writes for the Voice

PEOPLE with mental health conditions currently face agonisingly long waits to access the care they need, and children are no exception to this.

Half of all mental health problems are established by the age of 14, so getting the right help during childhood is vital.

However, numbers of children waiting for mental health treatment have doubled since June 2020, and a fifth of these children now wait for more than 12 weeks for a first appointment.

Delayed support can lead to worsening symptoms and, for some, the need for inpatient treatment. But service provision for children with severe mental health needs, including young people with eating disorders, is also falling short. A recent Care Quality Commission report found many children being held in ‘inappropriate settings,’ such as on general wards, while they wait for a suitable bed to free up. Far too many are being treated miles away from their families and support networks, which isn’t acceptable.

Seeking care is especially complex for parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities as well as mental health difficulties. These children are often ‘bounced between’ child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) and SEND services, with neither able to provide the right support that’s centred around the individual child’s needs.

While Bristol City Council is trying to do better, in announcing its Belonging Strategy as well as a three-year, £6.1 million Education Transformation Programme, problems still exist in the here and now.

The overall picture of UK children’s declining mental health appears bleak, and some MPs have attributed this to the introduction of COVID-19 restrictions. It’s easy to pin the blame here, but this fails to address why so many children were waiting for mental health support before the pandemic – particularly when NHS services have faced real-terms funding cuts for over a decade.

It’s also clear that many people end up needing long-term support after facing adverse childhood experiences – an issue I raised during Labour’s Opposition Day Debate marking Children’s Mental Health Week.

There are some glimmers of hope, and new approaches are being pioneered to tackle the scale of the crisis. In Oxfordshire, NHS services are working to secure separate provision for mental health crisis care. In Bristol, there are plans to allocate a room in A&E departments to autistic children, giving them a safe space away from sirens, bright lights and aggressive patients. And the ‘Fund the Hubs’ campaign points towards data from Australia, showing that 60% of those who attend drop-in youth support hubs see improvements in their mental health. It’s great to see support for this initiative grow in the UK too.

If you’re having problems in trying to access mental health support for your child, or know someone who is, please email me at, or call 0117 939 9901.