Cumbria’s pupil mental health services are “in crisis”, with warnings that teenagers are attempting suicide after long waits for support, Tes can reveal.
The NSPCC has warned that while the situation in Cumbria is “particularly bad”, it is “not an isolated case”.
On Friday the influential Commons Public Accounts Committee warned that pupils with mental health conditions were being “failed” by the NHS, with only three in 10 receiving treatment in 2017-18, and many more facing “unacceptably long waits”.
The Tes investigation into services in Cumbria reveals just what that can mean on the ground.
Rising numbers of referrals and budget cuts mean some young people in the county are waiting more than a year for treatment by child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS).
A local secondary teacher told Tes she knows of pupils who were referred to CAMHS for self-harm but had attempted suicide after waiting at least 10 months to be seen.
“It is widely acknowledged that CAMHS cannot cope, that young people’s lives are risk because of this,” she said.
“Unfortunately I now see a system where a child may die because of the absence of support. And let me be clear here, CAMHS aren’t the problem, the funding and regional issues are.”
Both she and a local youth worker said they know young people who have waited more than a year for treatment with no support beyond an occasional phone call.
“Continuing to wait to see a specialist makes things worse,” said the teacher.
One Cumbria teenager told Tes she waited five months for treatment, only for her CAMHS worker to disappear without any explanation.
“When it just stopped completely, that was very hard to deal with,” said the 15-year-old, whose depression and anxiety worsened to the point she sometimes had to miss school.
“There were a lot of times where I needed [CAMHS] and it wasn’t really there.”
Another girl's eating disorder became so severe as she waited for counselling she eventually had to be sent for specialist treatment in Edinburgh, forcing her to repeat a year of school.
Schools are struggling to cope with surging demand for mental health services at a time when their budgets are being squeezed to breaking point.
Local children's social services across the country have also been hit particularly hard, with England's children's commissioner warning local authorities now spend only 6 per cent of their budgets on young people.
Analysis by children’s charity the NSPCC found that only 12 per cent of England’s 195 clinical commissioning groups had adequate mental health provision plans for vulnerable children in 2017-18.
“Cumbria sounds a particularly bad case, but it’s certainly not an isolated case,” said Alana Ryan, senior policy and public affairs officer at the charity.
“Unfortunately children’s mental health hasn’t so far been seen as a priority. This is being played out in the small amount of services being directed to children’s mental health."
Research published in October by the Education Policy Institute said referrals to CAMHS had increased nationally by 26 per cent over the last five years. It found that the demand was most acute in the North of England where referrals were up 39 per cent.
In Cumbria, one of the most rural counties in England, there are concerns that young people are often left isolated with few places to turn for support.
County mental health services are set to be handed over to outside trusts in October after warnings by the Care Quality Commission.
Services are now so stretched some young people have set up a campaign to train school pupils in “mental health first aid” and to provide their own counselling.
“Young people are really struggling here,” said Kate Whitmarsh, development officer at the Ewanrigg Local Trust, which is funding the scheme.
“Anybody who has had any involvement with the mental health services here would say it’s in crisis…There just simply isn’t the provision for young people.”
A spokesperson for the Cumbria Partnerships NHS Foundation Trust said the county sees young people in crisis within 48 hours, while other cases are prioritised according to vulnerability.
“In line with the national picture, our wait times for routine referrals are longer than we would like,” she said.
“We are currently undertaking an intense piece of work to reduce wait times for young people in the CAMHS service to ensure that young people receive timely intervention.”
Cumbria County Council did not respond to a request for comment.