We must deliver faster help for children '¨with mental health issues

Increasing numbers of children and young people are being prescribed anti-depressants and earlier this month Childline reported that more than 900 children with suicidal thoughts contacted them last year '“ twice as many as five years ago. If your child breaks an arm you will be worried but at least you would have the comfort of knowing that a visit to A & E will result in prompt treatment and all things being well the fracture should heal within two to three months.

Imagine, however, that your child begins to suffer from anxiety, depression or they start to self harm or exhibit other mental health problems. Their distress is such that they regularly are unable to go to school. You would expect them to get help as soon as possible just as they would for a physical health problem wouldn’t you? Sadly, this is not the reality experienced by many children and young people and their families.

Action for Sick Children Scotland (ASCS) all too often hears from families who are desperate to get help for their child but who feel they have come up against a brick wall. Schools often struggle to help. Going to the GP may result in a referral to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) but there will almost certainly be a lengthy wait. Latest figures show that across Scotland 22 per cent of children and young people referred had to wait longer than the NHS waiting time target of 18 weeks.

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Access to specialist beds is also problematic. I recall a foster carer ASCS worked with. Her young person was displaying such severe behavioural disorder that admission to a CAMHS specialist unit was imminent. There was no suitable provision nearby and she was desperately worried. The distance was too far for her to visit and yet she knew visits would be so important for this child who had already gone through so much.

It is for such reasons that ASCS and other members of the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition have been campaigning for the mental health of children and young people to receive the same priority as their physical health. The Scottish Government’s commitment to allocate some of the additional £150 million mental health funding to CAMHS, and the appointment of a Minister for Mental Health are both positive moves.

Last month the Scottish Government’s consultation on its ten-year Vision for Mental Health in Scotland closed. It set out eight priority areas for transforming mental health, actions needed and measures of success, and the strategy is due to be published later in 2016. In my view the consultation document lacks detail around proposed actions and I would have liked a stronger focus on children and young people, but its human rights-based approach and intention to ensure parity between mental and physical health is very welcome. The Scottish Government’s aim is to deliver on its commitment of “Ask Once, Get help Fast”.

For this to succeed we need greater investment in specialist CAMHS, in outpatient and community-based mental health services. We also need equal investment in early intervention and prevention to reduce the severity of mental health problems and the need to refer to CAMHS

For the sake of all our children and young people “Ask Once, Get Help Fast” must become a reality, not an aspiration.

Liz May, National Co-ordinator, Action for Sick Children Scotland, member of the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition, www.thescsc.org.uk/