'This is extremely alarming' - Huge rise in referrals to children's social services for mental ill health
PUBLISHED: 05:30 21 March 2019
Exam stress and social media have been blamed for a huge rise in the number of cases of children referred to social services for mental ill health.
The figures, from the Department for Education (DfE), show that 60% of referrals to children’s social services in 2017/18 had mental health listed as a factor – equating to 2,754 cases in just one year.
This is an increase on 50% of referrals, or 2,589 cases, in 2016/17.
When compared to the national average of just over 40%, the data indicates that mental health-related referrals in Suffolk are among the most prevalent in the country – implying that parents, schools and health services alike are struggling to cope with the demand.
‘Some of these kids are so lonely’
Nina Finbow, from the parents’ support group Huddl, said the rise could be down to a “combination of factors” – ranging from online bullying, to gaming addictions, exam pressures and sleep deprivation.
“There are so many different influences out there,” she said.
“Children are expected to lead the perfect life.
“There is an increase in anxiety at schools, through stress and exam pressure [due to] the level of expectations.
“Schools are struggling to deal with mental health – which is where we are trying to come in.”
She added that there has also been a “huge increase” in online bullying, as well as numerous instances of children incurring debts through online gaming.
With technology so readily available, Ms Finbow said it is key for parents to maintain an open and honest dialogue with their children to spot the warning signs before they develop into serious problems.
“Communication is vital,” she said.
“Some of these kids are so lonely – it is a bigger factor than people realise.”
She argued a cut down on internet use – especially social media – could also help prevent young people from developing a warped view of the world, fed by filters and doctored Instagram photos.
“Some of these things are not normal – they are not natural,” she said.
Ms Finbow advised parents and carers to ban mobile phones from their children’s bedrooms, as late night social media sessions can lead to sleep deprivation – a common cause of stress.
“Studies show sleep deprivation is causing a huge number of problems in the classroom,” she said.
“Parents need to be really strong and say no devices in bedrooms at all.”
‘Children are passed around due to politics’
Rebecca Jasper, from Suffolk support group Parents and Carers Together (PACT), called the figures “extremely alarming”, claiming that children are often “passed around from service to service due to politics and a lack of funding for mental health care”.
“The local statistics are extremely alarming but would sadly come as no real surprise to the parents who daily face so many obstacles just to get basic support when their child is experiencing poor mental health or lack of special needs provision in schools,” she said.
“Deteriorating mental health is usually first noticed when a child begins to struggle in an educational setting. When referrals to children and adolescent mental health services (CAHMS) can take anything up to over a year to even be assessed we hear it’s common for the child’s mental health to then spiral downwards very fast without adequate levels of support and adjustments.
“This frequently may include violent outbursts, but equally could see self-harming or school-based anxiety.”
Mrs Jasper claimed it is likely that many referrals to children’s social services stem from a lack of understanding or empathy on the part of the authorities.
“We hear of schools making referrals to social services in these cases and we have even heard of CAMHS making referrals to social services also, believing those to be social care issues (poor parenting, lack of boundaries etc),” she added.
“It’s a disgrace that rather than focusing on the child’s core needs of basic mental health support, they are passed around due to politics and a lack of funding for mental health care and appropriate and timely special needs provision and awareness.”
What else do the figures reveal?
The data also shows that just short of 60% of referrals in 2017/18 related to domestic violence, above the national average of 51%, and equivalent to 2,704 cases.
Meanwhile 26%, or 1,190 referrals, related to drug misuse – compared to 21% nationally.
The referrals in question are defined as ‘children in need episodes’ – which exclude cases where no further action is taken, or the only activity recorded against the referral was an assessment.
Each referral could be associated with a number of different factors.
What does the council have to say?
The county council has claimed the comparatively high proportion of mental health cases in Suffolk could actually reflect positively on its referral system.
Gordon Jones, cabinet member for children’s services, education and skills, said it appears more children are suffering from mental health problems because the council is able to identify their specific needs at an earlier stage than other authorities.
“Overall Suffolk receives fewer referrals about children than our neighbouring authorities,” he said.
“Our Multi Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH), which is where referrals about children are first considered, works very hard to clearly identify the needs of children when they first become aware of the children’s circumstances. This means that it is more likely that children access help in a timely way.
“Organisations across the county have a high level of awareness of the mental health needs of children and this is reflected in those children who are referred to the MASH. Similarly, the MASH takes similar steps to be specific about the early identification of domestic abuse, drug misuse and abuse relating to faith or belief.
“In other councils such concerns are often initially identified using more generic terms such as, that the child may be neglected.”
What does the NHS have to say?
When asked how the figures reflect on NHS services in Suffolk, officers blamed the “internet age” for making young people more prone to mental health issues.
Dr Ed Garratt, chief officer for the NHS Ipswich and East Suffolk and NHS West Suffolk clinical commissioning groups, said: “It is generally accepted by everyone that children and young people today are far more prone to mental health issues than previous generations.
“Peer pressure in the internet age has triggered issues around body image, social media, cyber bullying and other factors that impact on youngsters in ways that we are only now beginning to properly understand.
“The CCGs recently undertook a major review of mental health services in the east and west of our county that saw members of the public, service users, carers and staff from numerous public and voluntary sector organisations taking part in wide-ranging conversations about how to make our mental health services fit for the future.
“It led to the development of a mental health and wellbeing strategy that sets out a vision for how the whole system has a role in supporting people’s emotional wellbeing.”
He added: “We want to ensure that children and young people who become unwell can get help quickly by building support in the community to avoid the need for a hospital stay, but also make specialist and crisis support easier to access when appropriate.”
The Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust (NSFT) had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.
What does the government have to say?
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “The mental health of our children and young people is a key priority for this government. As part of the NHS Long Term Plan, we have committed to increasing the funding for children and young people’s mental health services faster than both overall NHS funding and total mental health spending.
“This will give 345,000 more children and young people access to NHS-funded mental health services and support in schools and colleges, will ensure young adults receive better support until the age of 25, and that crisis care is provided through NHS 111, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”