The Children's Commissioner for England has said no child should live in a mental health institution as she highlighted how they could become "dangerously unsafe" as shown by the deaths of three teenage girls.
Dame Rachel de Souze described the deaths of Nadia Sharif, 17, Christie Hartnett, 17 and Emily Moore, 18 as "tragic".
Following her report into children's mental health services in England, she warned there was a “postcode lottery” for children in need of support and described the picture of across the country as "patchy".
A report released by the commissioner found children in Sunderland who were referred to the NHS for support with their mental health have to waiter longer for treatment than anywhere else in the country.
Figures showed young people in Sunderland had to wait an average of 80 days – double the average in England of 40 days.
For her report, the commissioner's office said they had carried out new analysis of children's mental health services and waiting lists in England, showing that there were 1.4 million children estimated to have a mental health disorder in the financial year 2021-22.
Of those, less than half (48%) had at least one contact with children and young people's mental health services (CYPMHS) and just over a third (34%) had at least two contacts.
The average waiting time between a child being referred to CYPMHS and starting treatment rose from 32 days in 2020-21 to 40 days in 2021-22, and varied between areas with the report noting a 13-day wait in NHS Leicester City up to an 80-day wait in NHS Sunderland.
Dame Rachel told ITV: "That's just too long. If a child is very depressed, can't go to school, is suicidal, to wait for so long for help is desperate."
In other areas, the Sunderland trust scored more highly, including on how much it spent on mental health services.
In response, a joint NHS statement said: "We are aware that waiting times are longer than we would want them to be due to both higher demand and a shortage of qualified specialist mental health staff in the region."
It added services were working hard to improve and are making real progress.
Meanwhile, Dame Rachel said her aim was for no child to live in a mental health institution.
Her report said: “These settings struggle to provide the kind of caring, familial environment that children desperately need. And in the last year we have seen that in some cases they can be dangerously unsafe – as the tragic deaths Nadia Sharif, Christie Hartnett, and Emily Moore while they were in inpatient mental health care show.”
The girls were all patients at West Lane mental health hospital in Middlesbrough in 2019.
Nadia and Christie died there in the summer of 2019, while Emily died at Lanchester Road Hospital in February 2020, shortly after her 18th birthday.
The Commissioner's report also said there had been a 47% increase in children referred to CYPMHS, from 498,000 in 2020-21 to 734,000 the following year - but acknowledged the rise was likely due to change in the methodology used to track the numbers.
Children's Commissioner for England Dame Rachel de Souza said: "It's clear that mental health support for children across the country is patchy, despite some good progress made by the NHS in the years leading up to the pandemic.
"I want to see Mental Health Support Teams delivered in every school by the end 0f 2025. We need a clear-eyed focus on the specific needs of children in Government mental health investment."
A government spokesperson said: "These figures highlight how important it is that we do everything we can to support our children and young people with their mental health.
"We are already investing £2.3 billion a year into mental health services, meaning an additional 345,000 children and young people will be able to access NHS-funded mental health support they need by 2024.
"Support in school is vital, and we are committed to increasing the number of mental health teams to almost 400 by April 2023, providing support to three million children and young people."
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