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The Care Quality Commission (CQC) said too many children and young people were unable to get any help until they reached “crisis point” amid widespread rationing of treatment.
The cases include a girl with an eating disorder denied help on the grounds she “wasn’t thin enough,” encouraging her to further deteriorate.
The review of mental health services for children and young people said restrictions on treatment meant vulnerable patients were being told that their best hope of help was to exaggerate.
“Some young people had been advised by their GPs to ‘pretend things are worse than they are’ to increase their chances of being accepted into specialist Child and Adolescent Health Services,” the report warns.
Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said some children were only getting help after attempting suicide.
“Thousands of children are not receiving access to the mental health services they need. Too often referrals are only made when a child is at crisis point and sadly some children have even told me that that they felt they had to attempt to take their own life in order to access treatment,” she said.
The report said health services, education and local government services were not working together effectively to protect and support children.
Sarah Brennan, chief executive of charity YoungMinds welcomed the calls, saying that every day the charity was contacted by families who had been denied help, or forced to wait up to 18 months.
She said: “We regularly hear from young people who have started to self-harm or become suicidal while waiting for appropriate help, and who have ended up going to A&E because they haven’t been able to find support elsewhere. This simply shouldn’t be happening in 21st Century Britain.”
One young person told CQC: "You shouldn't have to be suicidal to get an appointment".
The watchdog, which examined the care in 10 areas of England, found that some children are "bounced" between different parts of the system due to staffing shortages and confusing referral routes.
CQC's lead for mental health and deputy chief executive of hospitals, Dr Paul Lelliott, said: "Children and young people deserve to have their mental health needs and wellbeing put at the heart of every decision, be that planning, commissioning or resourcing.
"Currently, this is not the reality everywhere and we heard from too many young people who felt they could only access care at a crisis point because local services are not working together, or are not able to work together effectively to support their mental health and wellbeing."
Claire Murdoch, national mental health director for NHS England, said: "Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (Camhs) services are now improving, but from a starting point of historic under-funding and legacy under-staffing, relative to rapidly growing need.
"The CQC rightly acknowledge that the NHS's five-year plan for mental health - developed with patients, their families, health professionals and other partners - sets out a clear routemap for improvement and investment, and progress is under way.”
By Laura Donnelly
8 March 2018