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.”
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”
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”.