Real-terms spending on children's mental health services in England has been cut by 60 per cent of local authorities, new research has found.
The study by England's Children's Commissioner warns that youngsters in need of low-level treatment face a "postcode lottery" of provision.
School nurses or counsellors, drop-in centres or online counselling services can provide these low-level services for anxiety, depression and eating disorders, which help prevent conditions developing into more serious illnesses.
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Researchers found £226 million was allocated for low-level services in 2018-19, just over £14 per child. Around half of this funding comes from local authorities (LAs) and half from NHS sources.
While spending per child increased 16 per cent in real terms between 2016-17 and 2018-19, the report found that very high-spending areas were masking a larger proportion of low-spending areas, and that wide variations existed across the country.
While 58 per cent of areas reported a real-terms increase in total spend per child between 2016-17 and 2018-19, more than a third of areas (37 per cent) saw a real-terms fall.
The report concluded that in areas where spending had fallen, it was often driven by reduced LA spending.
From 2016-17 to 2018-19, only around a third of areas saw LA spending per child increase in real terms – nearly 60 per cent of areas saw it fall.
Regional analysis revealed that in London, LA spending per child was £17.88, compared with just £5.32 in the East of England.
"This report reveals for the first time the postcode lottery facing the increasing number of children suffering from low-level mental health conditions like anxiety and depression," Anne Longfield, the Children's Commissioner for England, said.
"The children I speak to who are suffering from conditions like anxiety and depression aren't asking for intensive inpatient therapeutic treatment, they just want to be able to talk to a counsellor about their worries and to be offered advice on how to stop their problems turning into a crisis.
"Local authorities are under huge financial pressure and many are doing a good job, but those who are spending barely anything on low-level mental health cannot continue to leave children to struggle alone."
Emma Thomas, chief executive of mental health charity YoungMinds, said the report's findings were "deeply concerning".
"We work with young people who say that getting the right mental health support from a youth worker, school counsellor or local charity saved their lives," she said.
"While extra money for specialist NHS services is, of course, welcome, it's better for everyone if young people can get help before their needs escalate or they hit crisis point."
Researchers gathered spending data from all LAs and almost all NHS clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) to produce the report.
Chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, Anntoinette Bramble, said: “Significant funding pressures mean many councils are being forced to cut some of the vital early intervention services which can support children with low-level mental health issues and avoid more serious problems in later life.
“Children’s services face a funding gap of £3.1 billion by 2025 while public health services, which also help children get the best start in life, have seen cuts of £700 million. If we are to improve provision of preventative and early intervention services then it is vital the Government adequately funds these in the forthcoming Spending Review.
“But we also need the NHS to work more effectively with councils. In addition, the Government promised £1.7 billion for children’s mental health, and it should make certain that all of this is received by children’s mental health services, and not diverted elsewhere. Where it has been spent on other services, government should make up the shortfall.”