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Major report uncovers variation in child mental health spend

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More than a third of localities in England have reduced real terms spending on low level children’s mental health services over the past two years creating a postcode lottery, Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield has said.

Her report Early Access to Mental Health Support said such ‘low level’ services were preventative and early intervention services for treating problems like anxiety, depression or eating disorders, which could often prevent conditions developing into more serious illnesses.

The report looked at both council and NHS spending on these services, which totalled £226m in 2018-19, equivalent to just over £14 per child. This was an increase on 2016-17 of 22% however the report said where spend had fallen it had been “driven by reduced [local authority] spending” with 60% of councils cutting spending.

The report also found that between 2016-17 and 2017-18 the proportion of council spending from children’s services budgets decreased slightly while the proportion from public health grew.

The report found considerable variation existed between areas, with the top 25% spending £1.1m or more and the bottom quarter only £180,000 or less.

In London, council spending per child on low-level mental health services was £17.88 per child, compared to only £5.32 per child in the East of England.

Ms Longfield (pictured) said: “This report reveals for the first time the postcode lottery facing the increasing number of children suffering from low-level mental health conditions.

“It is extremely worrying that a third of local areas in England are actually reducing real terms spending on these vital services.”

She said many councils were doing a good job under huge financial pressure, “but those who are spending barely anything on low-level mental health cannot continue to leave children to struggle alone”.

However, overall councils accounted for a slightly larger proportion of spending in 2018-19 than clinical commissioning groups, 50% compared to 46%, with the remainder of spending coming from other sources such as schools or GPs. Councils spent on average £10.84 per child while CCGs spent £9.27.

Charlotte Ramsden, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services health, care and additional needs policy committee, said this was “simply unsustainable” in the face of huge reductions in council funding.

She added: ”We welcome the government’s focus on improving children’s mental health and wellbeing but if we are to truly transform the system in the way that vulnerable children so rightly need and deserve there must be investment in both specialist services for children and young people as well as services that prevent mental health problems from escalating and becoming entrenched in the first place.”

Local Government Association children and young people board chair Anntoinette Bramble (Lab) said: “Significant funding pressures mean many councils are being forced to cut some of the vital early intervention services which can support children with low level mental health issues and avoid more serious problems in later life.”

Cllr Bramble said both children’s services and public health faced funding gaps that should be addressed in the government’s forthcoming spending review.

She added: “The government promised £1.7bn for children’s mental health, and it should make certain that all of this is received by children’s mental health services, and not diverted elsewhere. Where it has been spent on other services, government should make up the shortfall.”

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