Rise in young people waiting for mental health assessments

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The number of young people waiting for mental health assessments has sharply increased following the Covid-19 lockdowns.

Today (3rd March), East Sussex Health Overview Scrutiny Committee considered a report from Sussex Partnership NHS Trust about the impact of the pandemic on its Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).

The Committee heard the pandemic and lockdowns had resulted in an across-the-board increase in the demand for children’s and young people’s mental health and wellbeing services.

CAMHS clinical director Dr Alison Wallis said:

The impact of social isolation has been huge for young people.

There is often an idea that loneliness is associated with our older population, but actually the impact of lockdowns, where young people have lost their structure, lost their purpose and lost their routine and lost access to their friends, has absolutely increased the feeling of loneliness and social isolation.

We’ve seen acute increased anxiety with our young people, which is shown both through avoiding activities, avoiding getting back into routines when lockdowns have been lifted, insomnia and difficulties with relationships.

[But] for some of our young people not being in school has actually reduced their levels of anxiety and improved their mental health. So we have had two populations we are trying to support; those for whom the lockdown was helpful in terms of their levels of anxiety and low mood and those for whom the lockdown has had a significant detrimental impact.

Other areas to see increases during the pandemic included the number of young people needing treatment for eating disorders. There was a particular increase in the number of young people needing ‘urgent treatment’, Dr Wallis said, who were “so physically compromised they need an assessment within five working days”.

Sussex Partnership NHS Trust said referrals to CAMHS had initially ‘slowed’ at the start of the pandemic, but began rising significantly around the time of the second wave. Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust provides mental health and learning disability services in our area. Figures provided by the Trust show CAMHS received 2,838 referrals between February 2021 and January 2022, up from 1,987 during the same period in 2020/21.

When combined with a slight decrease in the number of discharges the Trust has achieved, the increase in referrals has resulted in a significant increase in the number of young people waiting for assessments.

According to papers, there are currently more than 1,000 young people waiting for assessment from CAMHS, around 170 of whom have been waiting for more than a year.

Those waiting the longest are mostly young people waiting for an autism spectrum condition or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder assessment, the Trust said. To address this, the Trust says it has put in place investment plans to expand its services in these areas.

The Trust has also put in place measures to support children and young people waiting for care. This includes an online drop-in group for all families who are awaiting an ASC or ADHD assessment.

In all, the Trust has made around £2.4m of additional investment in 2021/22 intended to improve access to services, as well as the outcomes and experiences children and young people receive. This included additional recruitment.

Further additional investment is expected in the coming 2022/23 financial year as well.

The Committee also heard details about how the Trust had operated during the pandemic.

During the first lockdown, the Trust was quick to establish digital services so that patients could still access support. For CAMHS, this included virtual appointments, so patients could access treatment without the need to meet face-to-face.

However, it became clear as time went on that this digital approach was not appropriate for all of its patients. Some young people did not have access to computers, while others found it difficult to find a private space to speak confidentially.

Going forward, the Trust says it intends to offer a “blended approach” offering both virtual and face-to-face appointments. They say this would both improve digital access while also maintaining direct contact for those for whom this is difficult.

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