By Stephen McGhee

THE fact that we are facing a crisis when it comes to our children and young people’s mental health is well-established.

Under-resourced and overstretched mental health services were already creaking at the seams prior to Covid-19. The pandemic further added to this, with school closures and an inability to access services further adding to the backlog of cases, including increasing levels of anxiety, self-harm and depression.

A survey published last year by NHS Digital found one in six children in England had a probable mental disorder in 2021 – a similar rate to 2020 but a huge increase from one in nine in 2017. It is difficult to see why these figures would be any different north of the Border.

The current cost of living crisis has further exacerbated the situation, driving many families further into poverty, with a resulting impact on mental health. Our children and young people are frequently facing intolerably long waiting times for treatment, and suffering while they wait and their problems often worsen.

Compounding this already perfect storm is the devastating impact of cuts in public services on those with mental health issues, as outlined in the Scottish Government’s Resource Spending Review, with an estimated £3.5 billion spending shortfall by 2026/27.

Latest figure published by Public Health Scotland this week indicate that 5,016 children and young people started treatment at Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) during the quarter ending March 2022, an increase of 7.7 per cent from the previous quarter (4,659). However, just 73.2 per cent were seen within the Scottish Government’s maximum waiting time for the NHS of 18 weeks from referral to treatment (to be met by at least 90 per cent of patients).

At the end of March 2022, a staggering total of 1,322 children and young people had been waiting for over a year for treatment.

Specialist CAMHS need greatly increased investment, with the commitment by the Scottish Government to clear backlogs by March 2023 to be welcomed, although this will prove highly challenging. What is even more crucial is a renewed focus of resources on expanded prevention and early intervention services. This can serve to reduce the need for referral to costly specialist mental health services.

The Scottish Government activity in this area is to be applauded, including the recent provision of an additional £15 million to local authorities to deliver locally-based mental health and wellbeing support for five to 24-year-olds in their communities, providing alternative support options and ensuring access to counselling support services in all secondary schools.

This is all a step in the right direction, but more clearly requires to be done, and what is worrying are proposed cuts in public services, including to local government and the voluntary sector, which forms the backbone to the delivery of these.

This is a crisis we can overcome, but as the country comes to terms with the biggest hit to its mental health in generations, it will require a similar energy and commitment to that demonstrated for Covid-19 if we are to achieve this and prevent many young people giving up on their futures.

Stephen McGhee of Spark of Genius is a member of the Scottish Children’s Services