The number of children suffering from emotional distress is “increasing exponentially”, the chair of a specialist taskforce reviewing mental health care for youngsters has warned.
Dame Denise Coia said that, combined with an increase in disorders such as autism and ADHD, had resulted in a “massive increase” in referrals to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS).
While she said there had been no increase in the incidence of serious mental illness, she spoke about the number of youngsters who were left suffering because of anxiety and depression, bullying or issues with their body image.
Dame Denise, who chairs the taskforce jointly set up by the Scottish Government and the council body Cosla, said there was “complete consensus” the “problems with mental health in Scotland with children and young people are increasing exponentially”.
She added: “That’s not related to the incidence or prevalence of serious mental illness, that is unchanged.
“The rise is in the emotional distress in young people at schools, so issues around bullying, body image, depression, anxiety, is really on the increase and has massively changed.”
She commented on “serious issues” relating to how those with neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism, Asperger’s and ADHD are dealt with, saying youngsters with these conditions were sometimes treated by CAHMS, but in some places could be treated by paediatric services.
She said: “These two areas have grown significantly and that has accounted for the massive increase in referrals.”
Dame Denise was questioned on the issue by MSPs on Holyrood’s audit committee after a report by public spending watchdogs found specialist mental health services for young people were “complex and fragmented”, warning the system was under “significant pressure” due to an increase in demand.
NHS Scotland chief executive Paul Gray told the committee there had a been a 69 per cent increase in CAMHS provision since 2007.
In her programme for government, the First Minister announced an extra £250 million spending to improve mental health care – including a £60m pledge to recruit hundreds of school nurses along with counsellors for secondary schools, colleges and universities.
But Dame Denise stressed the importance of authorities providing equal services for young people, with a third of Scotland’s population under the age of 24.
“Providers have to make sure they are giving equal priority to child and adolescent services and that is what we are not seeing going round the country,” she told the committee.
“I think we live in an age of austerity and we’re all grown-ups in the age of austerity and we know that actually we have to all meet our commitments to try to live within our means.
“I think the issue for me is as we attempt to live within our means I think if the population, a third of them are under the age of 24, we actually have to make sure living within our means gives them a fair percentage of the resource we have… that we don’t prioritise other areas at the expense of children and young people.”