CAMHS waiting times leading to children's mental health deteriorating

Mental health in children is detoriorating

No response from CAMHS causes parents to look for alternatives options - Credit: Myriams Fotos

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the mental health crisis has surged across the UK with millions of people left on dangerously long waiting lists for help.  

Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) recorded an increase in demand for its services before the pandemic, but from the end of 2019 its numbers sky rocketed.  

Around 1,760 children are now being seen by CAMHS, for every 100,000 caseloads. This differs even more between regions and localities. Since COVID, a record number of referrals of 3,000 to 100,000 children nationwide have been reported - a 15 per cent increase in referrals to CAMHS in just one year, and seven per cent in some areas. 

The access teenagers and young children have to mental health services in the UK depend largely on “a postcode lottery”, as it matters how much is spent, what referrals are given, and where in England they live, a report from the Children’s Commissioner for England has said.

Heightened anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and self-harm is common among children and young people. 

Lisa Jury, a psychotherapist from Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire, said she is worried about the lengths parents have to go to for their children to receive basic help.  

As their mental health continues to deteriorate, parents of young children are getting more and more worried and frightened, while therapists and GPs are also starting to voice their concerns publicly, she said.

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“There’s a kind of desperation that these parents are getting to. It’s the waiting and the worrying and the lists that their children are on that’s forcing them to find alternatives.  

“Because parents blame themselves. When you have a child, parental guilt is enormous. They keep trying and sometimes have to do things themselves.” 

Many parents had complaints about the lack of help they were receiving from CAMHS and some said they have had to take extreme measures and quit their jobs to look after their children and seek substitute health services. 

St Albans resident Louise Lawson, the mother of two daughters, 15 and 10, has had a hard time getting her oldest to go back to school.  

After a recent GP appointment, they had been referred back to CAMHS and are now experiencing long waiting times for an appointment.  

"It is likely to be a longer wait than her actual time left at school, so we are currently in a limbo. No support from mental health, other than the numbers to call if she feels she is going to self-harm,” she said. 

The average waiting time for a first appointment is nine weeks and a total of 13 weeks to start treatment, while children on an autism spectrum have to wait an average of 22 weeks. On average 22 per cent of children have waited over 18 weeks to be seen, the Centre for Mental Health said.  

Parental guilt is enormous

Parental guilt in enormous as the waiting and worrying and lists that their children are on, force them to find alternative solutions. - Credit: Pixabay

Another concerned mother, Samantha Elizabeth Tuvey, said: “Still on CAMHS waiting list. My teen was in hospital over Christmas after an overdose! I was asking for help in Year 7 and got nowhere, now in Year 9 and it’s so hard, mental health keeps declining!  

“(He) is going through so much, my family started paying for some private counselling to try to help but it’s so expensive and I am a single mum. I am so lost and this system is broken unfortunately.” 

Lisa explained: “Because their resources are limited, I think they can only see the children that they feel are at most risk. There doesn’t seem to be one universal approach. It doesn’t seem to be able to cope with the demand. The demand exceeds its capacity, unfortunately."

Although the proportion of referrals have increased, CAMHS accepts an average of 77% nationally, which is a figure that has not changed, regardless of the increase in referrals, the Centre for Mental Health added. 

Lisa said: "You can only see a certain amount of people when you’ve only got limited resources, so there has to be a way of trying to manage that."

"Due to the lack of response of help from CAMHS, many private therapists and doctors have an increased work load due to multiple referrals coming in daily.

“You can’t say that this isn’t serious and that’s only from my angle. I am just one person. Hearing what’s going on and seeing what’s going on from parents and other therapist colleagues, it is difficult, but you can’t help everybody."

A CAMHS spokesperson for Herts responded to the claims: "A number of different organisations provide mental health services for children and young people in Hertfordshire, ranging from specialist NHS mental health providers to the county council and small local organisations.

"These organisations are working together to better understand the demand and to invest in additional services. As a result, waiting times for mental health services in Hertfordshire are generally in line with or better than current national averages.

"A CAMHS system redesign programme to improve access to appropriate services and reduce waiting times across services for children and young people, supported by additional investment of over £9 million has been brought on. We are also the first county in the UK to have a specific team to help children and young people with special educational needs. 

"Hertfordshire is committed to supporting the mental health and emotional wellbeing of our children and young people."

If a child or young person is experiencing difficulties, there are a number of sources of support. Parents/carers should ask their school or GP in the first instance, or those with younger children could contact the Hertfordshire Family Centre Service on 0300 123 7572 or