Tens of thousands of kids are waiting two years or more for mental health support in England, officials have revealed.

Some 40,000 children and young people endured these lengthy waits last year after being referred for specialist care, often after seeing family doctors or other health professionals.

Demand for services is high, with nearly 1 million kids seeking mental health support in the 2022/2023 financial year. That’s around 8% of England’s 11.9 million children.

But provision is patchy, with kids in certain parts of the country facing much longer waits than others. Children in the northern city of Sunderland waited an average of 147 days for support, compared with a national average of 35 days.

In Southend in the southeastern county of Essex, children waited just 4 days on average for care.

The U.K.’s Children’s Commissioner, Rachel de Souza, published the figures from NHS England on Thursday. She said increased demand for mental health services should come as no surprise.

“This generation of children have faced uncertain and challenging times like no other generation before them — they are bombarded with negative world news, and many are exposed to the harmful impact of the online world,” she said in a statement.

“Against this backdrop,” she added, “it’s unsurprising that so many children and young people are continuing to experience issues with their mental health.”

‘Agonisingly long’ waits

In total, around 305,000 children received mental health support in England last year after a referral. But almost as many — 270,300 — were waiting for care at the end of the financial year.

Some 372,800 children’s referrals were closed before they accessed support, but the reasons for this were not specified.

De Souza said “shocking to see so many children being referred to mental health services because they have reached crisis point.”

The bulk of healthcare is provided free at the point of use by the country’s public health system, the National Health Service.

But demand for historically-overstretched mental health services has risen and public providers are struggling to keep up: one factor in these long waits for care.

“For children and young people two years can be a significant portion of their young lives, so the long waiting times experienced by some children in this report can feel agonisingly long,” de Souza said.

Underinvestment ‘making a tough job even tougher’

Placing the blame for inadequate services squarely on “local and national leaders failing to prioritize children’s mental health,” she called for “fresh, long-term thinking” on kid’s mental and emotional wellbeing.

“Children need environments – both online and offline – where they grow up feeling happy, safe and supported, and aren’t left to feel like second class citizens when it comes to accessing mental health support,” she said.

With the right support, she added, many kids wouldn’t need to access mental health services at all.

Health industry experts have called for government support and extra funding to ensure kids can access high quality support.

Deputy chief executive of hospital management body NHS Providers, Saffron Cordery, said in a statement: “Leaders across the NHS are desperate to give children and young people the mental health support they need but with record-high demand continuing to outstrip capacity, this is proving increasingly challenging.

“Staffing shortages and long-standing under-investment in mental health settings is making a tough job even tougher.”

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