Research reveals major gaps in early mental health support for children and young people

Kathryn Wheeler
By Kathryn Wheeler,
updated on Jun 18, 2021

Research reveals major gaps in early mental health support for children and young people

With rigid thresholds for receiving specialist mental health care in place, children and young people are falling through the gaps

When it comes to supporting those with mental health problems, early intervention is key to preventing escalation, and yet new findings from charities Young Minds and The Children’s Society have revealed that more than a quarter of young people struggling with their mental health don’t ask for help because they ‘don’t want to inconvenience anyone’ and 37% said they didn’t feel their problems were bad enough to see a GP.

These findings follow research by the two charities into the role that GPs play in providing advice and support for young people struggling with their mental health. The study additionally found that 67% would prefer to be able to access mental health support without having to see their GP, but 47% said they did not know how else to access this help.

Assessing what may behind this attitude, the charities point to research from 2019 that found that many felt there were major gaps in support for the young people who did not meet the threshold to receive help from specialist NHS services – while only 8% of GPs agree there was good community support for children and young people with ‘emerging mental health problems’.

“We know that many young people struggle to reach out for support with their mental health, and their GP is often the first person they speak to,” says Emma Thomas, chief executive of YoungMinds. “GPs can play a crucial role for young people, making referrals to specialist support and working hard to provide advice and guidance. While many young people have good experiences of speaking to their GP, we found inconsistencies in their experiences. There can also be a devastating lack of options for those who are referred but are left waiting for support.”

As Emma highlights, the pandemic has only led to more pressure on young people, and although measures have been taken to improve access to NHS services, young people are still falling through the gaps and missing out on early support.

“GPs need places to direct young people to where they can get support for their mental health without needing an appointment, even if they don’t meet the threshold for specialist services,” Emma says. “That’s why we are calling for the Government to invest in early support hubs in every community.”

In order to take action, YoungMinds and The Children’s Society are calling for a renewed focus on early intervention, with their recommendations for change including:

  • Create a network of early support hubs for young people’s mental health.
  • Improve access to NHS children and young people’s mental health services.
  • Embed the principles of a youth-friendly practice in GP surgeries across the country to improve accessibility for children and young people.
  • Provide additional training for GPs and surgery staff on children and young people’s mental health.
  • Ensure that GPs and other professionals are aware of services and support options for young people’s mental health.
  • Enable families to support young people who are experiencing mental ill-health.

“When a young person comes forward regarding their mental health, it has taken a significant step for them to do this and many of these young people will not reach the threshold for Children and Young People’s Mental Health Services,” says Dr Fiona Smith, GP and clinical lead for Footsteps Youth Wellbeing. “It is common for young people to be referred and rejected a number of times, as they repeatedly fall below the threshold for CAMHS services.

“I believe that being able to offer a service within the community that is easily accessible for young people by providing online appointment booking and drop-in slots that young people can access on their own or with a parent would radically improve the wellbeing and mental health care of children across the country. Having run a service of this kind since 2018 I can see the benefits to our local young people who have accessed the service and would be strongly in support of more local health hubs for young people across the country.”

To find out more about The Children’s Society and YoungMinds, and how you can get involved, visit their websites.

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