Sarah Brennan, the chief executive of the mental health charity Young Minds, said: “It’s staggering that so many children and young people are in need of specialist mental health care. These figures should act as a wake-up call.”
The Guardian reveals the figures for the first time at the start of a two-day series prompted by rapidly accumulating evidence that growing numbers of children, teenagers and young adults are being afflicted by debilitating psychological and psychiatric ailments.
Among the 235,189 young people who were in contact with mental health services in June were 11,849 boys and girls aged five and under, and 53,659 aged between six and 10. Just over 100,000 patients were 11 to 15, and 69,505 were 16 to 18.
Contrary to some experts’ expectations, the total comprised more boys (130,395) than girls (104,522).
NHS Digital, the health service’s statistical arm, began collating the figures in January. The numbers for the whole of England would be higher as 40% of mental health trusts did not provide data.
Experts blame growing pressures on the young, including the need to excel academically, look good and be popular, as well as poverty and family breakdown for the growing burden of mental illness in school-age children and young adults. An NHS inquiry found last week that self-harm and post-traumatic stress disorder had risen sharply in young women aged 16 to 24 in recent years.
Azia, 17, from West Yorkshire, went to her GP in 2014 for help with problems including anxiety and depression. “I had been feeling hopeless and helpless, tearful, with no motivation or interest in doing anything,” she said. “I was not getting any enjoyment out of life and had suicidal thoughts. From around the age of 13, I also experienced anxiety. The physical symptoms were headaches, soreness in my limbs, bloatedness, sweats and shivers, loss of libido and increased sleeping.”
Azia, who has received cognitive behavioural therapy from NHS children and adolescent mental health services, said she was doing much better but still needed help. Her anxiety meant her family could not do things like go on holiday, she said.
“There’s a lot more pressure now on young kids to get excellent grades and go to university. It can make these feelings worse. Also, sometimes it feels like adults think that when you’re young you can’t have anything really serious going on. It makes it harder to speak to people about it.”
The figures have sparked calls for ministers, schools and the NHS to do much more to prevent, identify and treat mental disorders in young people.
Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, said the extra £1.4bn that the government had pledged to improve support for troubled children during this parliament was funding an expansion of services so that the increasing numbers seeking help could get access.
“Tackling the problems of mental ill health in children and young people is a priority for this government and I welcome the Guardian’s focus on this important area,” he said. New waiting time standards for treatment for eating disorders and early intervention in episodes of psychosis would help ensure that the £1.4bn got to the areas of greatest need, Hunt added.
Childline said it saw a significant rise in calls about young people’s mental health in 2015-16 and conducted 92,891 counselling sessions – by telephone, email and social media – as a result. Of those, 19,481 contacts were about young people who were thinking about ending their own lives – double the numbers received five years ago. It conducts an average of 53 suicide counselling sessions a day – more than one every 30 minutes.
Luciana Berger, a former shadow cabinet minister for mental health and now president of the Labour campaign for mental health, said: “These new figures shine a spotlight on the extent of the demand for mental health treatment, particularly when we know there are thousands of children who are being turned away because thresholds to access services are out of reach for too many.”
NHS England said: “We know that increasing numbers of children and young people are accessing mental health services across the country. It’s an absolute priority for us that these vulnerable children and young people are provided with the best services possible and the additional £1.25bn, which started to go into the NHS in 2015, is helping us to kickstart this upgrade in care.”
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