The coronavirus pandemic has made the case for change in mental health care for children and young people “more urgent”, public spending watchdogs have warned.
A report in 2018 by Audit Scotland, looking at why some youngsters get rejected for help from Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) found that “complex and fragmented systems” could make it “difficult for children and young people to get the support they need”
Since then number of youngsters having to wait more than a year for treatment has trebled in the past 12 months.
Antony Clark, controller of audit and director of performance audit and best value at Audit Scotland, said that “serious concerns have existed for years about access to children and young people’s mental health services”.
But he stated that the impact of the coronavirus pandemic “has made the need for change more urgent”.
In a blog post published on the Audit Scotland website, he said the situation today was still “similar” to what it was in 2018, “despite significant investment” by the Scottish Government.
Mr Clark noted there were more more youngsters waiting longer than the 18-week target time to start receiving CAMHS treatment – with the proportion of patients on the list for longer than this rising from 26% in 2017-18 to 33% in 2020-21
He added: “Meanwhile, those waiting more than a year for treatment has trebled in the last 12 months – up from 6% in March 2020 to 18% in March 2021. That’s a real marker of the pandemic’s impact.”
At the end of March 2020 there were 695 children and young people who had been waiting a year or more for their first CAMHS appointment – but by the end of March this year official statistics showed that had risen to 2,012, an increase of 189.5% over the period.
While a fall in the number of youngsters being referred for specialist help could be seen as “one bright spot” with numbers down 17% in a year, Mr Clark added that “this is very likely due to Covid-19 measures such as school closures and limited access to GPs rather than a reduction in demand”.
He stressed that the pandemic and the resulting restrictions brought in by ministers “have made it more important than ever that children and young people can access the support they need”.
Scottish Conservative mental health spokesman Craig Hoy MSP also insisted that “urgent investment” was needed.
He said: “Scotland’s most vulnerable young people are continuing to be miserably let down by the SNP Government.”
The Tory MSP said it was “devastating that almost a fifth of youngsters are waiting over a year to begin vital mental health treatment”.
Mr Hoy added: “Even prior to the pandemic, the SNP were failing to ensure young people seeking treatment were being seen as quickly as possible. The pandemic has turned this into a full-blown crisis.
“SNP ministers must act now – there is no time to waste. We urgently need much more than warm words to tackle the mounting child and adolescent mental health crisis.
“We need urgent investment into frontline services delivered by health boards and third sector organisations.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP said his party had secured “significant additional funding in the most recent budget” to bolster mental health services.
“This should be the first step in a long journey to rebuild these crucial services,” he added.
“Scottish Liberal Democrats have championed the cause of Scotland’s mental health for years now because we recognised that even before the pandemic services were a shadow of what they should be.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We are investing in additional resources in both preventative action and current services to benefit children and young people’s mental health.
“This includes giving access to a counsellor in every secondary school and providing £15 million additional funding to local authorities to deliver local mental health and wellbeing support for five to 24-year-olds in their communities.
“We recognise that long waits are unacceptable, and remain committed to meet the standard that 90% of children and young people begin treatment within 18 weeks of referral. That’s why we have provided an additional £34 million to NHS boards to improve services, including action to address waiting lists.
“We will monitor this closely and expect all boards to implement the new service delivery specifications to clear backlogs and meet the 90% waiting times standard by March 2023.”
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