The mental health of our nation’s children was highlighted as a priority in the NHS ten year plan. Before the pandemic, the availability of children and young people’s mental health services were sadly inadequate. Many areas have tried and failed to increase provision of mental health services for children and young people. Devastatingly, the pandemic has dramatically exacerbated this issue and we are now at a crisis point where many children and young people with serious mental health issues do not have access to the treatment they so desperately need.
When a child or young person is critically unwell and becomes a significant risk to themselves, they may require admission to an inpatient unit that specialises in treatment of mental health issues. The number of children and young people currently requiring these inpatient beds vastly exceeds the number of beds available. So what happens to these children? They get admitted to the local acute paediatric hospital which does their best but is far from ideal. Imagine you are a suicidal 15 year old who has lost all hope. You’ve been admitted to a ward where there are crying babies most nights, you are told not to leave the tiny dingy room due to covid-19 ward restrictions and none of your friends are allowed to visit you. There’s nobody with specialist training in mental health issues to treat you and it’s four weeks until they think there might be a bed for you in a unit that can treat you. How will you get through the next four weeks? Sadly, this is the stark reality for many many children across the country.
This crisis has been accelerated by the pandemic and that in turn has forced many of us who work in acute paediatrics to accept that we must be part of the solution. Given these children are now stuck on acute paediatric wards for weeks on end, acute hospital wards must stop being a holding place and start being treatment facilities. The government need to financially incentivise acute hospital Trusts to build purpose designed wards for children and young people with mental health problems. They need to provide funds to staff these wards. There is an insufficient number of child and adolescent psychiatrists nationally so the government must provide incentives and train acute paediatric doctors to treat and care for children and young people with mental health problems. Whilst this solution requires an initial outlay of financial support, it would not take long before this intervention started saving the NHS and country money. We cannot stand by any longer, for the sake of the generations to come, we must take these steps now.