From £17,88 to £5,32 per-child – low-level mental health support funding is 'postcode lottery'

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

There is a stark postcode lottery when it comes to funding for low-level mental health support, with spending per-child ranging from a high of £17,88 to a low of £5,32.

An analysis published this week shows a national average spend across England of £14 per-child. However, at a time of rising mental health spending, some areas are cutting funding.

Low-level mental health services are preventative and early intervention services for treating problems like anxiety and depression or eating disorders. They include support provided by school nurses or counsellors, drop-in centres or online counselling services and can be crucial in preventing conditions from developing into more serious illnesses.

The analysis has been published by Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England. It finds that while the top-spending areas are allocating budgets of at least £1.1 million or more, the worst-funded areas are spending £180,000 or less.

Total reported spend on low-level mental health services across all areas in England increased by 17 per cent in real-terms between 2016/17 and 2018/19 the report finds. However, more than one-third of areas around the country still saw a real-terms fall in spending.

The report reveals that in London, local authority spending on low-level mental health services was £17.88 per-child, compared to £5.32 per-child in the East of England. When analysed by Clinical Commissioning Group area, spend per-child is highest in the North of England (£12.76) and lowest in the Midlands and East (£5.83).

NHS figures published in November show that 12.8 per cent – roughly one in eight – five to 19-year-olds had at least one mental health disorder when assessed in 2017. This figure rises to 16.9 per cent of 17 to 19-year-olds. Emotional disorders were the most common, affecting 8.1 per cent of five to 19-year-olds in 2017, with higher rates for girls than boys. Of these, anxiety-related disorders were the most common.

However, 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 from one quarter in 2015/16.

Ms Longfield warns that despite the improvement, many children who currently seek specialist treatment are not receiving it.

She 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 report comes after the president of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), Andy Mellor, delivered a letter to 10 Downing Street warning of a mental health system “in crisis”.

Mr Mellor has just completed a four-day cycle from Blackpool to London in support of mental health charity Place2Be. In his letter to the prime minister, he writes: “NAHT members report a system in crisis, where unsupported children and young people are at best struggling to learn and at worst at serious risk. Schools refer children to specialist mental health services when they have legitimate concerns, but our members believe that the current thresholds for intervention are too high and waiting times for support and treatment are too long.”

A recent joint survey by the NAHT and ITN showed that more than 87 per cent of school leaders have had to re-refer the same pupil to children’s social care after an initial referral was rejected.

Paul Whiteman, NAHT general secretary, said: “Early intervention is vital when it comes to mental health. Problems don’t just go away when a child is denied help – they only get worse. If a teacher who sees a child every day is concerned enough to refer a child for help, they must be taken seriously.”

Ms 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.”

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