Lamb: Children’s mental health system ‘not fit for purpose’

Minister says NHS England and Department of Health taskforce will ‘find best solution’ to service failures

The system for organising children’s mental health services is ‘not fit for purpose’ and must be redesigned, care minister Norman Lamb has said.

The current system for commissioning and delivering services is ‘stuck in the dark ages’, the minister said. The split in commissioning responsibilities between four different organisations is overly complex and services are not currently focused enough on preventing young people’s mental health deteriorating to crisis point, he added.

Lamb is launching a taskforce to recommend reforms to the system. One taskforce member warned that the “chronic underfunding” of mental health services would need to be addressed.

The move follows a series of warnings about problems with children’s mental health services.

  • An investigation by Community Care and BBC News in February revealed that a shortage of beds at children’s mental health units meant young people were being sent hundreds of miles for care.
  • A review of tier 4 services published by NHS England last month found a lack of bed capacity in parts of the country and highlighted staffing problems at inpatient units. The findings prompted NHS England to open 50 more beds.
  • Campaigners have long argued that the pressure on inpatient beds is being driven by cuts to the community services run by NHS providers and local authorities. Data obtained by YoungMinds under the Freedom of Information Act found that more than three-quarters of NHS commissioning groups had cut or frozen their investment in children’s mental health services in 2014-15. Almost half of the local authorities that provided data had cut or frozen their funding for the services.

In an interview with BBC News, Lamb said: “I don’t think that children’s mental health services, the way they’re organised, the way they’re commissioned, are fit for purpose. I’m determined that we modernise services for children who have mental health problems.”

The taskforce, which will be co-chaired by Department of Health and NHS England officials and involve former service users, will look at how to improve commissioning arrangements and how to make better use of voluntary sector agencies and online technologies. The group will report its findings next Spring.

YoungMinds chief executive Sarah Brennan, who will sit on the taskforce, said: “We need commissioners to work together to create joined up services that are fit for purpose and easy to access when children and young people start to struggle. What we have now is too complex, too stressed and too poor.

“We cannot continue with this chronic underfunding which results in so many young people being turned away and never getting the help they need.  It is a national disgrace that while three children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental illness, only 0.6% of the NHS budget is spent on children and young people’s mental health.”

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