Plans up in smoke

Most professionals support the government’s proposals for child and adolescent mental health services. But a lack of money may prevent them ever coming to fruition, says Steven Walker

Child and family social workers are set to find their job becoming more difficult as it becomes clear that the government is failing to adequately fund and support child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs). The financial crisis affecting primary care and mental health trusts will scupper the government’s pledge in 2003 to establish a comprehensive child and adolescent mental health service in England and Wales by this year.

This has taken place in a period in which the latest survey of the mental health of children and young people revealed that one in 10 have a diagnosable mental health disorder, while one in five suffer a psychological disturbance that warrants intervention. The prevalence rates for socially excluded young people, such as refugee and asylum seekers and ethnic minorities, are much higher. Also, 90 per cent of young offenders and nearly 50 per cent of looked-after children have mental health problems.(1)

The 2004 National Service Framework for Children, Young People and Maternity Services (NSF) set national standards for the first time for children’s health and social care, aimed at promoting high-quality, women- and child-centred services and personalised care that met the needs of parents, children and their families. It was published in September 2004 by the Department of Health with the Department for Education and Skills, under the Change for Children – Every Child Matters reforms.

This was a significant collaboration between two government departments about their shared responsibilities for supporting the NSF, which was originally seen as health-driven. During the development of the NSF, children’s social care moved from the DH to the DfES, so it was crucial that the DfES ratified the document.

This unique joint responsibility and the equal attention to health and social care needs are now threatened. The NSF is a 10-year strategic plan to achieve child-centred services and reduce inequalities of care. It covers 11 standards and standard nine requires Camhs to deliver a comprehensive service in all areas by 2006, under the priorities and planning framework. The implication is that in any place there should be shared planning about how needs are to be met across the range of children’s mental health services.

Later government priorities, which emphasised the need to maintain the levels of services achieved through the previous planning round, gave further support to the expectation of a comprehensive Camhs.(2)

Unlike other NSF standards, specific funding was allocated to councils through the Camhs grant and to primary care trusts to improve child mental health services.

But the health money is no longer ring-fenced and, under the local government performance formula, three-star councils are not constrained by explicit targets. In the context of NHS overspending, PCTs and mental health trusts are reducing Camhs provision, leaving education and social services departments to cope as more troubled children and young people fail to obtain help from health service providers.

One achievement of the NSF is that the psychological well-being of children and young people is recognised throughout the document as an integral part of their healthy emotional, social, physical, cognitive and educational development. The belief that child mental health is everyone’s business is embedded in the policy. This implies that all those who come into contact with young people can influence the child’s emotional well-being, to promote mental health and intervene early to prevent problems starting or recognise when they begin to emerge.

In child mental health services, partnership working is of paramount importance with joint commissioning, joint management and joint provision of services. This too is at risk. The NSF describes a range of provision where collaborative provision between child mental health services and professionals and other agencies and services is essential to meet the needs of young people comprehensively.(3) But all this good practice is at risk of being undermined and dismantled as budget deficits take effect. Services for which collaborative partnerships are essential include those for children and young people who are:

  • Looked after in residential provision, fostered or preparing for adoption.
  • Experiencing serious behavioural difficulties and at risk of exclusion from school.
  • Suffering the effects of abuse, neglect and domestic violence.
    Misusing drugs or alcohol.
  • Leaving care, in transition and becoming independent.
  • Affected by parental mental illness.
  • Troubled with complex, severe and persistent behavioural and mental health needs.

    This vital work takes place with youth offending teams, behavioural and educational support teams, learning support units, early intervention services for psychosis, adolescent in-patient units, paediatric nursing and perinatal services.

    As preventive provision diminishes, more disturbed children and young people will attend GPs and A&E departments, putting added strain on staff. Social workers in hospitals, attached to GPs or in community mental health teams will face more situations where a young person is so disturbed that the use of the Mental Health Act 1983 will have to be considered with a view to involuntary admission. Child and family social workers will find that waiting lists for specialist Camhs provision lengthen while the number of disturbed children increases.

    There is evidence of the significant financial burden of untreated mental health problems to young people, their families and to society.(4)

    Social workers know also only too well the psychological consequences of not responding to the needs of vulnerable, troubled children and young people now and in the future. The government’s failure to adequately develop Camhs will condemn a generation of families to unnecessary torment and suffering while further undermining social workers’ efforts to make a positive difference in their lives. 

    Steven Walker is programme leader for child and adolescent mental health at Anglia Ruskin University. He trained in social work at the London School of Economics and has practised in child protection and child and adolescent mental health services. His latest books are: Social Work & Child & Adolescent Mental Health, Russell House, 2003, and Culturally Competent Therapy, Palgrave, 2005.

    Training and learning
    The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.

    The government’s promise to achieve a comprehensive child and adolescent mental health service by 2006 is at risk of being missed. This is due to under-investment and a failure to enable proper joint planning, commissioning and delivery of inter-professional resources. This article describes the implications for child and family social workers.

    (1) S Walker, Social Work and Child and Adolescent Mental Health, Russell House Publishers, 2003
    (2) Department of Health, National Standards, Local Action: Health and Social Care Standards and Planning Framework 2005-6 and 2007-8, DH, 2004
    (3) S Walker, Working Together for Healthy Young Minds, Russell House Publishers, 2003
    (4) S Scott et al, “Financial cost of social exclusion: follow-up study of antisocial children into adulthood”, British Medical Journal, 323, pp191-194, 2001

    Further information

  • M Hodes, “Psychologically distressed refugee children in the United Kingdom,” Child Psychology and Psychiatry Review, 5, 2: pp57-67, 2000
  • S Walker, Culturally Competent Therapy – Working with Children and Young People, Palgrave, 2005

    Contact the author

  • More from Community Care

    Comments are closed.