Questions are being raised as new figures show thousands of pupils are being denied mental health treatment.
Almost 18,000 referrals for child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) – the vast majority of which are made by health professionals – have been rejected in Scotland since the SNP government established an 18-week waiting time target for treatment, new research by Scottish Labour reveals.
The Scottish government set a standard for the NHS to deliver a maximum wait of 18 weeks from December 2014. Since then, 17,843 referrals have been rejected, with Labour arguing that not enough is known about why they are rejected and what happens next to the children.
The figures come to light as concerns continue to mount in schools about the lack of support for young people suffering from mental health problems.
Mental health crisis
Last year guidance teachers wrote an open letter to the education secretary John Swinney warning that pupils who are suicidal or face serious problems at home are being let down. They warned that CAMHS was “stretched”, adding that soon something important would be missed and the consequences would be “dire”.
A coalition of children’s organisations – the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition – meanwhile has repeatedly warned that it is not unusual for the 18-week waiting time target for CAMHS to be missed and that this results in “a substantial period of time when a barrier to learning is not addressed fully”.
Most recently, SCSC highlighted official figures published last month that showed in the three months to 30 September more than a quarter of children and young people referred to CAMHS had not started their treatment within the 18-week waiting period.
In England, there are also concerns about a mounting mental health crisis in the classroom. Last month the UK government pledged £215 million to bring mental health treatment into schools.
'Dragging their heels'
Scottish Labour’s health spokesman, Anas Sarwar, said the thousands of vulnerable young people who had their referrals rejected over the past three years were being denied the help they needed.
He said: “The vast majority of these referrals will be from health professionals and it raises questions about whether our NHS is getting the resources it needs to cope with demand.
“Labour pushed the SNP government for years to review the system, to find answers as to why some children are being denied help and what happens to them next, but ministers have been dragging their heels ever since.
“If these numbers were replicated in acute services it would be seen as a national scandal, thousands of children and young people are being denied mental health treatment and the SNP government has shown no urgency in finding out why.”
Mental health minister Maureen Watt said the government was committed to ensuring that children and young people had access to high-quality mental health services and that in the last quarter half of children and young people started their treatment within 12 weeks.
There were a number of reasons why a referral may be rejected and ultimately it was a clinical decision, Ms Watt said. However, she added that the government had started a review of rejected CAMHS referrals.
“Our rejected referrals review will ensure we understand how improvements can be made, and guide young people to the most appropriate help and support,” she said.