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Children face mental health ‘postcode lottery’, Commissioner warns

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Over a third of local authorities in England have reduced real-terms spending on “low level” children’s mental health services, the Children’s Commissioner has warned today (Wednesday).

“Low-level” mental health services are preventative and early intervention services for treating problems like anxiety and depression or eating disorders, such as support provided by school nurses or counsellors, drop-in centres or online counselling services.

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, says these services are vital for offering early help to children suffering from mental health problems, and can often prevent conditions developing into much more serious illnesses.

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But data collected by the Children’s Commissioner reveals that local authorities and the NHS allocated only £226 million for low-level mental health services in 2018/19, a little over £14 per child.

The report also shows wide variations between areas in how much funding is available. For example, the top 25% of local areas spent at least £1.1 million or more, while the bottom 25% spent £180,000 or less.

The report warns that this “postcode lottery” means that some children with mental health problems are being left to “struggle alone”.

While the total reported spend on low-level mental health services across all areas in England increased by 22% between 2016/17 and 2018/19 in cash terms, and by 17% in real terms, over a third of areas around the country still saw a real-terms fall in spending.

The NHS Long Term plan, published in January, revealed that less than a third of children with a mental health problem are accessing treatment.

While this has improved, the report highlights how the rate of improvement varies greatly across the country and the increase in capacity is simply failing to keep up with growing demand.

The report also shows that where spending has fallen it has often been driven by reduced spending by local authorities.

In 2018/19, spending per child was higher in London and the North East but lower in the East Midlands, the East of England and the South East. In London, local authority spending per child on low-level mental health services was £17.88 per child, compared to only £5.32 per child in the East of England.

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, commenting on today’s report, 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 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.”

Barbara Keeley MP, Labour’s Shadow Cabinet Minister for Mental Health, said: “The Tories’ short-sighted approach to funding mental health services is merely robbing Peter to pay Paul, resulting in children across the country ending up in mental health crisis because of a lack of early intervention.

“Local Authority budgets have been cut in half by this reckless Tory Government, hitting crucial services that help prevent with mental health problems in the first place.

“Labour will invest more in children’s mental health services and ring-fence budgets so that funding reaches the front line.”

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