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Mental health cuts leave vulnerable children waiting on wards, says doctor

A survey has found a growing number of children who have self-harmed are spending long periods in “unsuitable” acute wards, because of a lack of appropriate mental health services.

The findings, from 23 paediatric units, indicate medically-fit children are being left in acute wards, either waiting for beds to become available in more appropriate settings or for mental health assessments.

Nik Johnson, a consultant paediatrician at Hinchingbrooke Health Care Trust in Cambridgeshire, carried out the survey after seeing a sustained rise in admissions last summer.

He found 91% of the units – 21 out of the 23 – had seen a growing number of admissions for self-harm between 2013 and 2012. More than 80% of units said this had put strain on them and 70% blamed the problem on reduced child and adolescent mental health services.

Dr Johnson, who is also the Labour party candidate for Huntingdonshire, said: “At the moment, the place of care is defaulting to an acute paediatric bed [where] it becomes increasingly difficult to look after these distressed children safely.”

Nik Johnson

Nik Johnson

He highlighted that the “pressure is very much on” hospital nurses, because they had a “much more hands-on approach with these patients” than doctors.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recommends young people under the age of 16 are admitted to hospital following an incident of self-harm to receive treatment for their injuries before they are assessed by mental health services.

“They are being looked after by nurses who are more akin to looking after children with medical conditions”

Nik Johnson

However, Dr Johnson said the survey revealed children were sometimes waiting until the next day or over a weekend before being seen by mental health professionals.

“Between those assessments [they] are being looked after by nurses who are more akin to looking after children with medical conditions rather than mental health problems,” he said.

“We work as a team alongside our nursing colleagues who I am sure will recognise these pressures. I could not have got through the last nine months without the dedication of the nursing staff on the wards,” he added.

He called for action on the issue from NHS England and for a review of the NICE guidance on treating self-harm.

An NHS England spokesman said it was aiming to support commissioners “to improve the services available locally”.

Readers' comments (2)

  • These children are at least in a place of safety, my daughter age 12 was bullied at primary school,transferred to secondary school (not catchment) only for the bullying to continue.She became suicidal, self harming. We saw our GP for help in October, we were seen for assessment by the child and mental health team in February, as yet we have not been offered ANY help. My daughter is not unique.

    Unsuitable or offensive?

  • Whilst not at all condoning the situation described in the article, I have to agree with the first comment - these children are at least in a place of safety, hopefully receiving compassionate/empathetic/'human' care from nurses trained to look at someone holistically, even if without the specialist MH knowledge.
    Also, this is not unique to young person's care; adults admitted to an acute hospital via A&E for initial medical care may get 'mental health assessment', but no 'mental health care' until post-discharge (& then only if lucky/when worked way up the waiting list).
    When I was referred to a MH social worker for social care, whilst living alone in the community with no family nearby (& friends who would normally help out, caring for their own child, also on a waiting list for care, so not available) social worker told me to my face I wouldn't get assessed for at least 3 months as 'they have to prioritise people in hospital' - Why?! Those people may be 'bed-blocking' or something horribly inconvenient for services/funders, but at least they are safe and cared for.

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