Onkar Sahota: London’s mental health services are letting young people down

Onkar Sahota: London’s mental health services are letting young people down

New figures from the Children’s Commissioner for England paint a bleak picture for young people in London seeking access to mental health services. According to a briefing publishing in November, the five worst areas in the country are all in the capital. Sadly, these include Ealing and Hillingdon, the boroughs I represent on the London Assembly. And of 55 clinical commissioning groups across the country awarded less than half the maximum performance score, 11 are in Greater London. 

There is a lot of unmet need out there. When a young person is struggling, their GP or another health professional refers them to the specialist service. They should then be assessed and seen by a mental health professional. Yet at every stage, London’s young people are being let down.

Health services are supposed to be open so that they help young people before they hit a crisis. However, only 2.5 per cent of young people in London are in touch with services, which is lower than the English average. Those who do get in touch are too often turned away. One in three youngsters have their case closed before treatment. Whilst some of those will recover or be better off in another service, it is beyond belief to think that a third of the young people who make it to a referral are not sick enough to warrant treatment. This is purely and simply the rationing of our mental health services.

If a young person makes it to the end of the obstacle course and gets accepted into treatment, what awaits them then? A long delay. Less than one in five are referred and treated within six weeks. Nearly a third of young people currently referred into treatment in London are stuck somewhere beyond a three month wait.

Not only is London generally poor at serving young people with mental health problems, there are also inequalities between boroughs too. Let us not forget the bright spots – Tower Hamlets, Camden, and Kensington & Chelsea are all showing the way with decent investment, scale and speed. But on the other side, Westminster spends just £15 per young person. Islington sees an admirable number of young people but it doesn’t have the investment to match, resulting in waiting times averaging 117 days. And three in five young people in Bromley have been waiting more than three months for treatment.

Ten areas cut their child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) funding this year. Yet £1.7 billion more is needed each year just to reach the level of adult mental health services. The newly-publish NHS ten year plan says the budget for young people will rise faster than the rate of increase in the NHS or for general mental health services, but this is thin gruel, as there is no chance that more than two-thirds of the £2.3 billion extra allocated to mental health services will go to CAMHS. In the context of NHS spending still not keeping pace with need, CAMHS will continue to struggle.

Here at City Hall, the Mayor is putting his money where his mouth is. Thrive LDN is providing new opportunities for Londoners of all ages to learn about mental health. Mental health first aid training is coming to all schools in the city. And the new social prescribing vision will help people get well with activities in their community.

I for one will be banging the table with my local NHS leaders, telling them they need to follow the Mayor’s lead. I know they haven’t been given the funding they need by the government. But this poor performance is too serious to go on. If the government won’t fund CAMHS, we must start the change locally. This will never be enough, but it might help at least some young people to stay well. London politicians need to pick up this mission. If we don’t, the costs will be with us for decades.

Dr Onkar Sahota is a Labour member of the London Assembly, representing the Ealing & Hillingdon constituency.

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