Delays and shortages mean children in need of mental health crisis care are often being looked after by local authority children’s services teams and the courts while others turn to drugs, according to new analysis.
A study of NHS data by mental health charity Young Minds has shown that, in May 2023, there were record numbers of children referred to mental health crisis teams. Yet, because there are “nowhere near” enough mental health facilities, local authority children’s services teams and the courts are being forced to try to protect children who are in desperate need of medical care.
What’s more, children with difficult mental health problems are said to be facing severe restrictions under Deprivation of Liberty orders made by the High Court when no other solutions – such as a bed in a secure children’s home – are available.
Long before matters come to this stage, children with mental health issues should be receiving medication to deal with this, according to Yvonne Wilson, Chair of Nagalro and an independent social worker and children’s guardian.
However, the medication cannot be prescribed until the child has been properly diagnosed. Spiralling delays in referrals and appointments mean that children are often shut out of essential medication and some turn to cannabis in order to self-medicate, in place of the medicines they ought to be receiving.
According to data published by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, in the 12 months since 4th July 2022, the National Deprivation of Liberty court dealt with 1249 children who should have been receiving proper mental health care. Instead of this, local authority children’s services are “forced to devise enormously expensive bespoke solutions, sometimes just to keep children alive”. The Chair of Nagalro says that many of these children have severe mental health issues, including autism, self-harming, and repeated suicide attempts.
Almost all of the orders required the child to be subject to constant supervision, said Nagalro. The majority of orders require 2:1 supervision. Orders are also likely to require doors and windows where the child stays to be locked, permit the use of physical restraint, if necessary, and contain restrictions on internet use.
According to Wilson, these bespoke placements for children come at a great cost to the children who are isolated from their peers and family and have only a few hours of education each week:
“Many of the children I work with are young people who find themselves moved a long way from their home, have lost the ability to socialise and are without anything other than minimal education.”
“The children are, in effect, punished rather than treated,” added Nagalro, who are also concerned that deprivation of liberty orders are doing very little to provide the mental health treatment that these children really require.
Wilson says that she is aware of one child who has been under these “draconian restrictions” for two years. “There is no doubt”, she says “that the court and the social work staff dealing with these children are genuinely doing the best that they can for these children. However, what is required is specialist mental health facilities and treatment and these are simply not available”.
“There needs to be a real commitment from this government to properly fund mental health resources for children. We are not, as a society, taking sufficient responsibility for the ability of young people to become independent, functioning adults with an ability to be independent and manage their own lives. In effect, we are creating a generation of failed children and young people.”