One in three areas cut early mental health help

Over one third of local areas are cutting spending on low level mental health services the children’s commissioner for England has warned.

While the total reported spend on preventative and early intervention 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.

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, commenting on today’s report, 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 low level mental health services the report refers to are preventative and early intervention services for treating problems like anxiety and depression or eating disorders, such as support provided by school nurses or counsellors, drop-in centres or online counselling services. These services can often prevent conditions developing into much more serious illnesses.

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

The NHS Long Term plan, published in January, revealed that less than a third of children with a mental health problem are accessing treatment and support. This figure has improved since only a quarter of children were seen in 2015/16, and more money is being spent on children’s mental health services than in the past. yet despite this improvement, many children who currently seek specialist treatment are not receiving it and the increase in capacity is not keeping pace with increased demand.

Where spending has fallen, it has often been driven by reduced spending by local authorities the report reveals. 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.

Anne Longfield added: “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,” she added.

Chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, Cllr Anntoinette Bramble, said: “Significant funding pressures mean many councils are being forced to cut some of the vital early intervention services which can support children with low level mental health issues and avoid more serious problems in later life.

“Children’s services face a funding gap of £3.1 billion by 2025 while public health services, which also help children get the best start in life, have seen cuts of £700 million. If we are to improve provision of preventative and early intervention services then it is vital the government adequately funds these in the forthcoming Spending Review.

“But we also need the NHS to work more effectively with councils. In addition, the government promised £1.7 billion for children’s mental health, and it should make certain that all of this is received by children’s mental health services, and not diverted elsewhere. Where it has been spent on other services, government should make up the shortfall,” she concluded.

Early access to mental health support

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