Child mental health services are a postcode lottery, finds study

Children who need 'low level' mental health services for conditions such as depression and anxiety or eating disorders face a significant postcode lottery, a report has warned. An investigation by the Children’s Commissioner into spending on prevention and early intervention services in 2018/19 found while a quarter of areas are spending £1.1 million or more, the bottom quarter spent £180,000 or less.

Figures collected for the report from local authorities, public health bodies, children’s services and CCGs found funding for services had dropped in real terms in a third of areas. And 60% of local authorities had cut their funding in real terms in recent years.

Overall £226 million – or £14 per child – was spent last year on programmes including support provided by school nurses or counsellors, drop-in centres, or online counselling services. CCGs had allocated roughly £103m of the total spent on services designed to stop mental health conditions developing into more serious illnesses, the report found. But while some CCGs were spending £680,000 or more on low level mental health services for children others had only allocated around £140,000 or less.

In the North of England CCGs spent £12.76 per child compared with Midlands and the East which spent £5.83 per child. Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, warned that despite more funding being made available nationally for children’s mental health the system continues to fail to help until they are so unwell they need specialist intervention.

'This report reveals for the first time the postcode lottery facing the increasing number of children suffering from low-level mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. It is extremely worrying that a third of local areas in England are actually reducing real terms spending on these vital services.'

Dr Nick Waggett, chief executive of the Association of Child Psychotherapists, said: 'We welcome the Children's Commissioner's report that provides further evidence that children suffering anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions face a postcode lottery when seeking treatment. There are great disparities in local spending to meet the needs of children, young people and families both in the early intervention services highlighted in this report, and also in more specialist provision.

'We would however caution against the use of the phrase "low-level" in relation to the difficulties that are being seen in primary care. Many children and young people seen in the community will have complex needs and complicated networks of care that require skill and experience to manage. "Mild" presenting symptoms, whether emotional, relational or behavioural, may mask some very troubling underlying problems.'