Making Mental Health Services for Young People a Priority

The reason I took up this issue in the first place was not because I am the LibDem Shadow Health Secretary, but because I became personally aware of the scale of the problem of self-harm and eating disorders in my constituency.

There was a particularly tragic case of a teenage girl who died as a result of an eating disorder. I also became aware of the inadequacies of the mental health services for teenagers in the area, – especially the lack of availability of early intervention.

It was only last year that I had a discussion with two local General Practitioners in North Walsham who told me that they had made several referrals on behalf of teenage patients in respect of mental health problems to the Primary Care Trust, but that those patients had simply been referred back because there was effectively no service available.

Lack of investment in the face of increasing need

I am very keen for the Lib Dems to champion mental health services. We all know that they continue to be a Cinderella service in very many parts of the country and although there has been investment under this Government, it has lagged behind investment in other parts of the Health Service.

A parliamentary question which I put to the Secretary of State for Health revealed that almost 16,000 children were admitted to hospital for self-harm and eating disorders in the last year. The figures included an increase in the number of children under 10 who were admitted, with boys outnumbering girls in this age group.

Over 70,000 young people have been admitted to hospital for self-harm in the last four years, with admittances having risen by almost 35%.

Almost 4,000 young people have been admitted to hospital for eating disorders in the last four years, with cases having risen by almost 10% in the same period.

The Government has allowed child and adolescent mental health services to suffer drastic cuts over recent years. This means that many children are languishing on long waiting lists or not getting treatment that meets their specific needs. In fifteen Trusts, young people had to wait over two years for assessment, and there were 31 Trusts were they had to wait over a year for treatment. A Liberal Democrat survey earlier this year found that the average longest waiting time for treatment for eating disorders is 203 days, with some having to wait 720 days.

These shocking figures are just the tip of the iceberg as most young people suffering from these illnesses will never make it to hospital. The underlying problem is the lack of specialist mental health treatment. It is simply unacceptable that some young people suffering from eating disorders have to wait over two years for treatment. For some tragic cases, that help will come too late. These are not conditions that have an easy fix. Sufferers often have to deal with the symptoms for the rest of their lives.

Lack of targets

We have national targets for physical health conditions. For example, the target of 18 weeks’ maximum waiting time between seeing your General Practitioner and having an operation will apply by the end of this year. But the problem is that there are no such targets in community mental health services.

Furthermore, payment by results has been introduced for physical health conditions meaning that money follows each patient. This system has channelled funding through acute hospitals, but its failure is that it has starved mental health services of the resources required to meet people’s needs, and young people who are desperate for services are losing out.

Norman Lamb is Liberal Democrat Shadow Health Secretary and Member of Parliament for North Norfolk.

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