Understanding The Increase In Children’s Mental Health Referrals

Recent studies show a surge in the number of mental health referrals for children and young people. These statistics consider factors like growing waiting lists and a lack of support while waiting. As a result of the growing demand, healthcare providers and policymakers are working to understand the root causes of this increase, balancing this with effective strategies to cover the support required. In this article, we’ll explore this quiet crisis; looking into reasons for the increase, alongside the impact of untreated mental health on children and their families.

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What’s happening right now?

Currently, mental health support for children and young people is reaching a critical level in England. Recent studies from the Children’s Commissioner have shown a surprising 270,000 children are currently waiting for mental health support, while only 32% of those referred received the help they required.

What are the possible reasons for the increase?

There are several underlying causes which may be contributing to the rise in children's mental health issues. Some of the prevalent causes include:

Heightened awareness

With increased recognition of the impacts of childhood mental health challenges, more children and young people are being referred for support. This is highlighted by reports that half of all Childline counselling sessions in 2022/23 were related to mental or emotional health and wellbeing.

Reduced stigma

Minimising stigma around children’s mental health is vital for breaking barriers and encouraging positive conversation. And though reducing shame around this topic is essential, it’s an awareness that signposts people to support, which is either unavailable or requires being placed on an often lengthy waiting list.

Academic stress

A Children’s Mental Health Week 2023 study showed that 65% of UK children feel anxious, nervous or stressed because of school. The top pressures faced were reported as 

homework (55%), pressure to do well in class (43%), and bullying (37%). 

Issues like these can become overwhelming, leading to individuals seeking support, in turn increasing the referrals for mental health services. These pressures - housed in a place where children go to learn, build relationships and work towards their future - indicate that the UK school environment could be playing a large part in the declining mental health of young people.

Social media influence

Social media can have a profoundly positive impact on children and young people. It allows them to access relevant information and maintain relationships despite distance.

However, it also has its darker side, with social media allowing issues such as cyberbullying and peer pressure to occur at any time, while often giving potential perpetrators anonymity. Its addictive, dopamine-chasing influence has also been linked to lack of sleep, neglecting other activities like schoolwork, and isolation from friends and family.

And while evidence isn’t conclusive enough to truly define the link between social media and poor mental health, it’s certainly a factor to consider.

Family dynamics

While the influence of family life on mental health is complex and far-reaching, a couple of dominant factors stand out as potential influences on the rise in referrals. 

Family functioning

Children from dysfunctional families are often more likely to have mental health issues than those from well-functioning families. This can impact communication and cause a ripple effect of the unresolved problems that carry through into adulthood.

Family structure

There is also evidence the structure of a child's family can play a part in future mental health issues. There have been cases showing that children aged 2 to 10 living with step-siblings or in single-parent households are more likely to develop mental disorders. In the same studies, the opposite was true for children living with married parents.

What is the impact if mental health issues go untreated?

When childhood and teenage mental issues go untreated, they can significantly hinder development in a range of areas.  

Problems may include academic struggle, with one example being that behavioural and emotional problems at age three are linked to below-grade performance at age 12. This links in with another study, which shows that over 50% of mental health problems (or awareness of) in adult life start by the age of 14.

At the same time, the lasting impacts can continue into adulthood, impacting areas such as social and romantic relationships, and employment prospects.

What solutions are currently being offered?

When addressing these challenges, there is no one size fits all. Currently, several solutions have been introduced into home and school life, aimed at educating and providing preventative strategies for children and young people who are, or may experience, mental health challenges.

Government investment

In response to the question, ‘How is the government investing in mental health solutions?’, they announced £2.3 billion in additional funds to expand and transform the mental health services offered by the NHS. This announcement also stated that the £2.3 billion will help an additional 345,000 children and young people access NHS mental health support by 2024.

Intervention and prevention in schools

Initiatives like these involve either internal or external parties educating children about their emotions, effective ways to manage stress, and delivering actionable coping strategies. Some of the more well-known initiatives take place during Mental Health Awareness Week, helping children and young people to understand stigma, trauma and bullying. 

Educating young people to understand and manage their emotions can help prevent mental health problems before they start. This can be especially effective in places they attend regularly, like school.

Empowering parents and caregivers

Supporting parents and caregivers is crucial in helping them address the mental health issues their child may be experiencing. Websites like mentalhealth.org offer resources and strategies for a variety of scenarios, including for single parents and young mothers.

Offering digital options

While children and young people may have to wait a significant period before accessing treatment, for some, digital options may be a light in the dark.

Currently, the UK has several promising digital services aimed at younger people, some of which include proven strategies like cognitive behavioural therapy and even online talk therapy. 

While most of these solutions are still in their infancy, the more development and funding allotted to them, the more options families will have when waiting for support or maintaining care after support has been accessed.

What is the future of mental health referrals for children and young people?

Looking at the spike in mental health referrals for children and young people, it’s clear that awareness and acceptance of mental health issues have only increased the demand for timely and practical support.

With this in mind, there are several short-term solutions, including digital platforms and useful resources, to bridge the wait for support. While government investments may take a while to show their true impact, having resources and awareness programs in key areas like school helps younger people understand and process their feelings in a safe environment.

Keeping referrals down long-term requires a concerted effort from all of the mentioned areas - education, policymakers and technology -  to ensure that children and young people can access the support they need in a timely manner.

Disclaimer: This information is general and what is best for you will depend on your personal circumstances. Please speak with a financial adviser or do your own research before making a decision.

Dan Cooper
Mental Health and Wellbeing Copywriter

Dan is a mental health and wellbeing writer. He works with professionals and organisations; helping them spend more time supporting their clients. Previously, Dan worked as literature manager for one of the UK’s largest insurers, before spending time writing e-course material.

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