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Quarter of young people rejected from mental health services
Illustration Florence Guan

A quarter of young people are rejected from UK mental health services

133,000 were turned away in 2018/19, including those who have self-harmed, experienced abuse, or have eating disorders

It’s no secret that the UK’s mental health services are in crisis – especially when it comes to young people. A new study has revealed that over a quarter (26 per cent) of youths referred for specialist treatment are rejected.

Research conducted by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) estimated that 133,000 young people were turned away, including those who have self-harmed, experienced abuse, or have eating disorders, with rejection rates unchanged in the last four years despite government promises to address shortages in child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS).

The study also revealed significant differences based on location: services in London rejected 17 per cent of referrals, the north refused 22 per cent, while rates were highest in the south, east, and Midlands, where 28 per cent of referrals were turned away. 

According to the EPI, mental health providers said patients were refused primarily because their conditions were not suitable or serious enough to meet the threshold for treatment.

“Young people continue to be deprived of access to specialist mental health treatment,” David Laws, the EPI’s executive chairman, said, “despite the government claiming significant investment in mental health services over the past five years. Progress in improving access over this period has been hugely disappointing, and it is unacceptable that as many as one in four children referred to mental health services are being turned away.”

Although the average waiting time to begin treatment has fallen by 11 days since 2015, children and young people are still having to wait an average of two months. Speaking to Dazed in 2018, 17-year-old Jane said she took an overdose after spending two months on a CAMHS waiting list. “After my overdose, they made me skip the waiting list,” she explained, “which I found quite pointless because when I needed help, I wasn’t given it. You shouldn’t (only) be able to access services when you’re in a critical stage.”

“Young people continue to be deprived of access to specialist mental health treatment, despite the government claiming significant investment in mental health services over the past five years” – David Laws, EPI

The NHS has criticised the EPI’s report – which is based on data collected via freedom of information requests from over 60 mental health service providers – as “flawed”, suggesting that not all referrals require treatment and could instead be addressed by schools or local authorities. Though, speaking to the Guardian, Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that schools are actually struggling to fill the gap left by failing mental health services.

There’s no doubt that the blame lies with the (Tory) government – who have frequently been accused of trying to sell the NHS. “A very simplistic summary of government activity on young people’s mental health would be ‘all rhetoric and no action’,” mental health campaigner Natasha Devon told Dazed in 2018. “They are unwilling or unable to commit the drastic amounts of funding and policy changes which would be required to make a noticeable difference. Services are stretched beyond capacity. The system is broken.”