A campaign group has pleaded with the mayor of Lewisham to reverse a planned £250,000 cut to children’s mental health services.
Save Lewisham Hospital says the cut is “short-sighted”, and that vulnerable young people will go on to “incur far greater costs through potential hospitalisation, school exclusion and family breakdown”.
Lewisham’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS), largely funded by the NHS but also the council, supports children and young people who are experiencing significant mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidality.
It includes those who have diagnoses such as autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), ADHD, chronic health conditions, those with learning difficulties, looked after children, and young people involved in the criminal justice system.
The service has suffered years of cuts and, as it stands, the NHS has a national target for treating young people with a diagnosable mental health condition of only 35 per cent.
The proposed cut, going before full council on March 3, is part of £40 million planned over the next three years.
The council says its hands are tied because of years of Government austerity – Lewisham’s budget has been slashed by 40 per cent in the past decade, equating to about £500 per resident.
It has also says it will be investing in early help and support in schools in a bid to prevent mental health issues becoming so severe that children need CAMHS.
But despite general backing and acceptance of the rest of the cuts, all 11 members of Lewisham’s children and young people select committee voted against the CAMHS one, with the chair Cllr Luke Sorba pushing for reserves to be used instead.
One member of the public accounts committee, Cllr Tauseef Anwar, also opposes and spoke against the cut.
The council responded by pledging to keep the quarter of a million as a “contingency fund”, to be released if the need arises.
If it is drawn, the council will use reserves to balance the budget until it can find another cut elsewhere.
Director for children and young people Pinaki Ghoshal recently set out what it would take for the funds to be released, such as a 15 or 20 per cent increase in wait times.
But campaigners say the need is already there and highlight numerous emerging statistics that show a spike in demand as a result of the pandemic.
They say reserves should be used and no cut should be made.
A Save Lewisham Hospital spokesperson said: “We do this on the grounds that the budget reduction has been proposed on the basis of inaccurate information and has not been fully risk assessed to take into account the impact of the latest lockdown on child and adolescent mental health.
“We reiterate that due to historic underfunding, unless children are deemed exceptionally high risk then it is estimated that there are over 200 children and young people waiting for over six months for first assessments and a further 300 waiting up to a further 18 months for specialist assessments or treatment in CAMHS.”
Campaigners cited statistics such as an increase in referrals and the Centre for Mental Health reporting that 1.5 million children under 18 will either need new or additional mental health support as a result of the pandemic, with one third being new cases.
My daughter had to wait a year to get seen by CAMHS, which at the time felt intolerable, but when she was the seen the difference it made to her mental health was fantastic
The campaign quoted a “horrified” parent whose child used CAMHS in the past.
They said: “I was horrified to hear that Lewisham Council is considering make cuts in the CAMHS grant.
“CAMHS is such a valuable resource and at a time when our children are facing and experiencing extraordinary pressures – this is so short sighted.
“My daughter had to wait a year to get seen by CAMHS, which at the time felt intolerable, but when she was the seen the difference it made to her mental health was fantastic.
“She’s now at university and the help and tools she received from CAMHS has stood in good stead and has been used in more than one occasion during the various lockdowns and daily restrictions on her life.”
Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, warned earlier this year that mental health services do not have the capacity to cope with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on children.
The campaign cited her latest annual report which found that clinically significant mental health problems among children had risen by 50 per cent compared to three years earlier and one in six children now have a probable mental health condition.
“A Barnados report clearly identified that Covid-19 had a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable and marginalised children in our society and that they were having to reach crisis point before they accessed support,” the spokesperson said.
They added that Lewisham children have a higher number of mental health risk factors, including poverty and incidents of domestic violence, compared to the national average.
Chris Barnham, Lewisham’s cabinet member for children’s services and school performance, told the local democracy service that the NHS needs to do more for young people’s mental health.
He said: “CAMHS is an NHS service, run by the South London and Maudsley Hospital.
“The NHS needs to do more for young people’s mental health and I’m pleased that since 2018, our partnership with the local NHS has improved funding and waiting times.
“Lewisham Council’s budget has been cut in real terms from over £400 million to £240 million.
“Given the scale of the funding crisis we face, using the councils very limited reserves to top up NHS funding for an NHS service would be shortsighted.
“Our young people need a range of local services that offer support early, to avoid problems escalating.
“We have committed to a £250,000 contingency, in response to concerns about the impact the pandemic might have on children’s mental health.
“This money can be spent on mental health and wellbeing services if needed.”