Data shared exclusively with ITV News has revealed that waiting lists for children to access mental health services have more than doubled in the past five years, as Social Affairs Correspondent Sarah Corker reports
Waiting lists for children to access mental health services in the UK have more than doubled in the last five years, with tens of thousands of young people facing long waits as delays spiral out of control.
A series of investigations by ITV News have revealed that children are stuck in a vicious cycle - falling through gaps in the mental health support system, self-medicating with drugs and alcohol with criminal gangs waiting to exploit the most vulnerable.
Data from freedom of information requests obtained by House Magazine and shared exclusively with ITV News revealed in the worst cases some children are waiting up to four years for critical help.
In some areas of the UK those suffering from serious mental health conditions and addiction problems are unable to receive treatment until they have had multiple suicide attempts 'with serious intent'.
Sue Robson said her daughter never got the help she needed to deal with childhood trauma
Tina Robson from Sunderland was described by her family as a creative, clever and beautiful young women.
Throughout her life she struggled with mental health issues which led to years of heavy drug use.
“She was extremely vulnerable. She told me when she was 15 that she was addicted to heroin. It was impossible to get help at that stage for someone so young,” said her mother Dr Sue Robson.
Criminals, including county lines dealers preyed on Tina’s vulnerability; she was a victim of cuckooing - the forced takeover of someone’s home by gangs in order to deal and store drugs.
“She was exploited by men who were dealing drugs, keeping them in her home, or using her to move drugs about, she was doing regular runs from Sunderland to Manchester,” Dr Robson told ITV News.
She never got the help she needed to deal with childhood trauma and died in a homeless hostel in county Durham from an overdose in 2020 aged 35.
“I was always in her corner and fighting for services and treatment, but in the end it was just impossible. Tina was failed,” her mother told me in tears.
Sue has now set up Tina’s Haven, an organisation supporting other women suffering from addiction.
Experts warn that a decade of cuts to early intervention for drug and mental health issues have put services under extreme pressure.
Sonya Jones is a Service Manager & Safeguarding Lead with drugs charity With You In Shropshire, she manages a team of substance misuse workers treating children as young as 10.
She warns that vulnerable young people are being treated as ‘modern day slaves’ by county lines dealers.
At one point there were an estimated 25 lines operating across the county.
Sonya Jones warned of the risks to vulnerable young people by county lines dealers
“It’s child abuse on a mass scale and I think that’s underestimated. We will look back in years to come and hang our heads in shame at what has happened to these children.
“Where we are now, children will continue to die because nothing is happening that actually works,” said Ms Jones.
Across the charity’s 15 drug and alcohol services from Bournemouth on the south coast to Lanarkshire in Scotland, there has been a 14% increase in under 18s seeking help since 2020.
Suzanne Howes repeatedly warned professionals that she feared her son would die
In south east London, Samuel Howes struggled with OCD, anorexia and self-harming from an early age, and his drug and alcohol use escalated.
“Unbeknown to me he started to smoke cannabis to be able to manage his anxiety around school. We started to then see real changes in his behaviour through his self-medication,” his mother Suzanne Howes said.
“There was the sense that’s ‘he was from a regular background with a supportive family he’ll grow out of it.’
But when you have a child with dual diagnosis of addiction and mental health issues. It needs to be a combined approach, and it was it was fragmented,” Ms Howes told ITV News.
Samuel’s drug use escalated to Xanax, ketamine, cocaine and heroin as he struggled to cope and in his final months, he was admitted 10 times to four different A&E departments.
His mother repeatedly warned professionals that she feared he would die and just weeks before his 18th birthday, he took his own life in September 2020.
“There were so many red flags and it was acknowledged that he was very high risk.”
An inquest found a series of failures, including poor information sharing, from multiple agencies such as police, mental health and social services may have contributed to his death.
Anne Longfield CBE, Chair of the Commission on Young Lives and former Children’s Commissioner for England, spoke to ITV News
In response to our investigation, a government spokesperson said it is investing an additional £2.3 billion a year into mental health services, which will help an additional 345,000 children and young people to access NHS-funded mental health support by 2024.
“We are committed to the Drugs Strategy aim of 5,000 more young people in treatment, and we’re investing an extra £421 million through to 2025 to create over 50,000 high-quality places in drug and alcohol treatment.”
Do you or someone you know need help?
Contact organisations and charities who can offer support and advice.
Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know.