Report

Reaching the tipping point: Children and young people's mental health

What impact has the pandemic had on children and young people’s mental health and the services that support them?
Paula Lavis

25 August 2021

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With significant increases in demand for mental health support for children and young people across all services, there is mounting concern that the mental health system for children and young people in England is reaching tipping point. This report considers what impact the pandemic has had on children and young people’s mental health, the services that support them, and how local systems are working in new ways to confront the issues before them. 
 

Key points

  • There is mounting concern that the mental health system for children and young people in England is reaching tipping point, with the COVID-19 pandemic having exacerbated existing challenges, including mental health inequalities.
  • There are significant increases in demand for mental health support for children and young people across all services – from primary care to NHS specialist mental health services, voluntary sector, independent sector, and digital providers - but also pressures on acute trusts and local authorities. As many as 1.5 million children and young people may need new or additional mental health support as a result of the pandemic. This figure could be even higher when considering unmet need. 
  • In particular, demand for support for eating disorders has risen dramatically over the course of the last year. The number of young people completing an urgent or routine pathway for eating disorders has increased by 104 per cent between quarter four in 2019/20 and quarter four in 2020/21. 
  • Further funding is required to address the increase in demand and to continue the transformation of services and support for children and young people, especially support in schools and other educational settings.
  • This needs to include a greater focus on early intervention and addressing the social determinants of mental health. While there is intense pressure on beds now, priority must be given to preventative and early intervention services over the medium-to-long term.
  • However, funding alone will not address the problems. It is essential that we address chronic staffing shortages and challenges, including by investing in more children and young people’s mental health specialists and in training and education of the wider workforce. 
  • Children and young people’s mental health must be a priority for integrated care systems (ICS). They need to focus on addressing the fragmentation of children and young people’s mental health services that many people experience, and improve access to both early intervention and specialist mental health services.