Suicide-risk teenager waits weeks for help as health services struggle to cope

Young people who have attempted to take their own lives are among thousands waiting for specialist mental health support, it has emerged.
Many believe there is now a mental health crisis among teenagers. Picture: GettyMany believe there is now a mental health crisis among teenagers. Picture: Getty
Many believe there is now a mental health crisis among teenagers. Picture: Getty

Headteachers have raised concerns with Scotland on Sunday that Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) is inundated and struggling to cope.

One parent had to wait nearly a month for her daughter to see a specialist despite the 16-year-old being categorised as “high-risk” following a suicide attempt.

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NHS statistics show there are more than 10,000 young patients waiting to be seen, including more than 400 who have waited over a year, despite a £4 million investment by the Scottish Government to recruit 80 mental health specialists to deal with the backlog.

The mother of the teenager who tried to take her own life said she struggled to get help for her daughter even after the suicide attempt.

“She made a suicide attempt and it was still weeks after that before she was actually seen,” the mother said. “The suicide attempt was due to her father’s death – she couldn’t cope with it.

“We couldn’t get to see anyone. We were crying out for help and didn’t know what to do.

“The day after her suicide attempt, I was phoning up to see if she could see somebody and it was still three, maybe even four weeks after that.

“There are just so many teenagers and young adults being referred that they just don’t have the resources. We phoned up after her suicide attempt and were told she was a priority, but it still took four weeks to see somebody.”

Scotland on Sunday has chosen not to name the girl’s school to help protect her anonymity.

The headteacher said he had a number of pupils struggling to get help from CAMHS. “It’s massively under-resourced,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going on. I’m seeing the situation getting worse.

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“They’re also trying to get people off the list who are not seen as a risk to themselves. I think the government are hiding from it – the situation Scotland-wide is horrific.”

Figures published earlier this month showed less than three-quarters (74 per cent) of young mental health patients were seen within 18 weeks of referral. The target is 90 per cent.

Children’s campaigners have called for radical transformation of the system, with greater focus on preventing mental ill-health and early intervention.

Another headteacher, Melvyn Roffe, left, principal of George Watson’s College in Edinburgh, said his school had set up its own counselling service to help intervene earlier.

He said: “We have put in resource ourselves, not to replace CAMHS, but to acknowledge it’s not as accessible as we would like it to be. There needs to be more low-level support when young people need it rather than waiting for a crisis to appear.”

Asked if the system overall had reached crisis point, he said: “I think we’ve been there for a while. For a child and their parents experiencing difficulties, they need the help there and then – not in six months’ time.”

Professor Alex McMahon, right, nurse director at NHS Lothian, said: “We apologise to young people and their families who are waiting longer than they should to access CAMHS. “If a child is referred and assessed as being at risk, we treat them as a priority and see them as quickly as possible. For other children who are referred, their assessment will be within eight weeks. We are working extensively with school nurses and schools to introduce more preventative measures to help prevent some mental health difficulties becoming more serious.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We absolutely understand the distress caused to children, young people and their families by any delay in accessing mental health support.

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“More children and young people are being seen compared to the same time last year, but we are determined to go even further. That is why we have set up a new Mental Health Delivery Board, which is by chaired by mental health minister Clare Haughey and which oversees improvement and tracks performance ... we have also ensured additional funding to help boards improve their performance against current waiting times.”