Youth mental health care 'in dark ages', says minister

Care Minister Norman Lamb is determined to reform youth mental health services which are "not fit for purpose"

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Mental health services for young people in England are "stuck in the dark ages" and "not fit for purpose", according to a government minister.

Norman Lamb told BBC News he was determined to modernise the provision of psychiatric help for children.

The care and support minister is launching a task force to look into how to improve services.

One task force member said that "ultimately, money will have to be spent".

The problems in children's mental health services have been catalogued in a series of investigations by BBC News and the online journal Community Care.

  • There has been an increase in the number of young people being treated in adult wards and travelling huge distances to receive help
  • A recent survey carried out by the charity Young Minds showed that councils were cutting services
  • A report from NHS England last month acknowledged it had no idea about the extent to which mental health problems affect young people. They are however to open an extra 50 beds for inpatient care

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In children's mental health, we usually have to make not the best but the least worse decision”

End Quote Health official St Aubyn Centre

Mr Lamb told BBC News: "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.

"In many respects, the way services are organised is stuck in the dark ages and it needs to be brought into the modern age."

Pressures on system

The task force he has set up will look at how to improve the way children's mental health services are organised and commissioned, how to make better use of voluntary and charitable groups and how to make it easier for young people to access help online.

"Crucially, I want young people to be involved", Mr Lamb added.

The group will publish its findings next spring.

Jonny Benjamin describes how he became suicidal due to a "crisis" in youth mental health services

The minister was talking as he visited a purpose-built children's mental health unit in Colchester.

The St Aubyn Centre has 10 intensive care beds, 15 general psychiatric beds and a suite to admit young people with mental health illnesses have been detained by police.

The facility, built two years ago at a cost of £9m, is exactly the sort of facility the NHS should be providing, according to Mr Lamb.

But even here staff talk of the pressures on the system.

"In children's mental health, we usually have to make not the best but the least worse decision," said one official.

Two of the patients in the centre have come from Cornwall. It has also admitted patients from Newcastle and Somerset in recent weeks.

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Case study

Touring the facility alongside the minister was Jonny Benjamin.

The 27-year-old came to prominence earlier this year when he launched the #FindMike campaign, an attempt to trace the man who'd talked him out of a suicide attempt.

Mr Benjamin will be a member of the task force, and says he knows from first-hand experience the merits of good mental healthcare at a young age. "If I'd got the support I needed 10 years ago, I don't think I'd be in the position I'm in today.

"I believe I would have been able to manage my mental health, I would have been diagnosed with schizophrenia much earlier and that would have had a much more positive impact on my life."

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The task force will be co-chaired by officials from the Department of Health and NHS England.

NHS England recommended that Clinical Commissioning Groups cut funding for mental health services this year by 20% more than for physical health - a decision that dismayed psychiatrists.

One in 10 children and young people aged five to 16 suffers from a mental health condition, but just 0.6% of NHS funding is spent on services.

Sarah Brennan, chief executive of Young Minds, who will also sit on the task force said: "We can't have discussions about provision of services without talking about resources. Ultimately, they're (the NHS) are going to have to spend some money."

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