Mental health support for children - a postcode lottery

Author: Jo Carlowe
Mental health support for children - a postcode lottery

A new report into child mental health support reveals wide variations in funding and finds that a third of local authorities have reduced real term spending.

In her report*, Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, looked at the amount spent on low-level mental health support for children in England.

The Children’s Commissioner’s research is the first time any organisation has collected data to show how much is being spent by areas in England on low level mental health. It reveals that local areas, which included both local authorities and NHS spending, allocated a total of £226 million for low-level mental health services in 2018/19, just over £14 per child.

However, the report shows there were wide variations between areas in how much funding is available: the top 25% of local areas spent at least £1.1 million or more, while the bottom 25% spent £180,000 or less.

In 2018/19, spending per child was higher in London and the North East but lower in the East Midlands, the East of England and the South East. In London, local authority spending per child on low-level mental health services was £17.88 per child, compared to only £5.32 per child in the East of England.

This postcode lottery comes at a time when the government has made more funding available for children’s mental health nationally as the number of children in need of support and treatment from children’s mental health services has increased over the last decade.

While the total reported spend on low-level mental health services across all areas in England increased by 22% between 2016/17 and 2018/19 in cash terms, and by 17% in real terms, over a third of areas around the country still saw a real-terms fall in spending – with nearly 60% of local authorities seeing a real terms fall.

Commenting, Anne Longfield said: “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.

“The children I speak to who are suffering from conditions like anxiety and depression aren’t asking for intensive in-patient therapeutic treatment, they just want to be able to talk to a counsellor about their worries and to be offered advice on how to stop their problems turning into a crisis.

“The NHS Ten Year Plan has made children’s mental health a top priority, but it won’t succeed unless children with low-level mental health problems are offered help quickly and early. Local authorities are under huge financial pressure and many are doing a good job, but those who are spending barely anything on low-level mental health cannot continue to leave children to struggle alone.”

Responding to today’s findings, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson told OnMedica: "Investing in our children's mental health is a priority for this government and we are transforming services through the NHS Long Term Plan - backed by an extra £2.3 billion a year -  so that 70,000 more children a year have access to specialist mental health care by 2020/21.

"Early intervention is vital and we’re going further, piloting a four-week waiting time standard for treatment, training a brand new dedicated mental health workforce for schools across the country, and teaching pupils what good mental and physical health looks like.”

*Early access to mental health support: Technical Report. A report prepared by the Children’s Commissioner for England, April 2019.