Rise in number of children needing help for serious mental health problems, NHS data shows

There has been a huge increase in the number of children requiring treatment for serious mental health problems including eating disorders, figures show.

NHS data reveals a 39% rise in a year in referrals for NHS mental health treatment for under-18s to more than a million (1,169,515) in 2021/22.

By comparison, the figure was 839,570 in 2020/21, and in 2019/20 there were 850,741 referrals.

The England-wide data includes children who are suicidal, self-harming, suffering serious depression or anxiety, and have eating disorders.

Separately, NHS Digital data also shows hospital admissions for eating disorders are rising among children and young people.

There were 7,719 admissions in 2021/22 among under-18s, up from 6,079 the previous year and 4,232 in 2019/20 - which is an 82% rise across two years.

The most recent data available, from April to October 2022, reveals there were 3,456 admissions, up 38% from 2,508 for the same period in 2019, before the pandemic.

There were also 3,011 admissions from April to October 2020, as well as 4,600 for the same period in 2021 when the full effects of the pandemic were felt.

And the data suggests 2022/23 could see the highest number of hospital admissions for eating disorders, for people of all ages.

From April to October 2022, there were 15,083 admissions, compared with 28,436 for the whole of the previous year (2021/22).

There were 23,351 admissions a year earlier, and in 2019/20 there were 20,650, marking a 38% rise between 2019/20 and 2021/22.

Anorexia is the most prevalent eating disorder which is leading to hospital admissions among all ages, with 10,808 admissions in 2021/22.

The data also shows that bulimia is the next most common, with 5,563, while other eating disorders accounted for 12,893 admissions.

Dr Elaine Lockhart, chairwoman of the child and adolescent psychiatry faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said the surge of referrals for children and young people reflects a "whole range" of illnesses.

She said specialist services are needed to respond to the "most urgent and the most unwell", including youngsters who have psychosis, suicidal thoughts and severe anxiety disorder.

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Dr Lockhart said more staff were needed and that targets for seeing children urgently with eating disorders were sliding "completely".

"I think what's frustrating for us is if we could see them more quickly and intervene, then the difficulties might not become as severe as they do because they've had to wait," she added.

An NSPCC spokesperson said: "These alarming figures are sadly reflected in the conversations we are having through Childline. The service delivers tens of thousands of counselling sessions every year to children and young people who are self-harming, suffering depression or anxiety, experiencing suicidal thoughts and have eating disorders."

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: "Improving eating disorders services is a key priority and we're investing £53m per year in children and young people's community eating disorder services to increase capacity in 70 community teams across the country.

"We are already investing £2.3bn a year into mental health services, meaning an additional 345,000 children and young people will be able to access support by 2024 - and we're aiming to grow the mental health workforce by 27,000 more staff by this time too."