NHS providers covering Portsmouth and wider Hampshire are struggling to meet pre-Covid demand worsened by a surge in referrals in the pandemic.
A drop in face-to-face assessments due to Covid precautions is putting pressure on the teams who treat children with anxiety, depression, neurodiversity and eating disorders.
‘Fierce competition’ in recruiting staff in Hampshire is adding to the problem, as is worsening mental health among children linked to the pandemic.
Currently more than 300 young people in Portsmouth have been waiting longer than nine months for neurodiversity assessments that could lead to autism or ADHD diagnoses.
Some 112 children are waiting on average 15 weeks for their first assessment.
This pressure is replicated in services treating children in Hampshire, with a warning on the Hampshire CAMHS website that youngsters are waiting on average 54 weeks for treatment - and 15 weeks for assessment.
Among those in the backlog is nine-year-old Finley whose mum Michelle Franklin, 36, quit her job to support her son when he could not cope with mainstream school.
Little Finley, who is highly suspected to have autism, had to go down to just one hour a day of school as he could not cope.
That left him socially isolated and mum-of-two Michelle needing to be with him at home.
‘It’s the children that are suffering, she said.
‘It’s having what I believe in Finley are lifelong repercussions because he’s been denied access to certain services because he’s not seen as a child with needs.’
Having a diagnosis from CAMHS would have opened up support for her son, she said. ‘We’ve considered going private but I’m not in a position to do that.’
Finley was referred to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service in Hampshire - run by Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust - in 2018.
He had an initial assessment in May 2019. Weeks later Michelle got a letter saying he would be assessed for autism.
Despite chasing, that's the last the Bedhampton family heard.
Finley has only now been able to attend a specialist school after his infant school and mum fought for an Education, Health and Care Plan.
‘I’m sympathetic to the system because they’re overrun,’ she said.
‘It feels like a lifetime waiting and it does have a knock-on effect.
‘I can’t say he’s autistic now. He has to be treated like any atypical child which is not what he is.
‘It just feels like the system is failing these children.’
CAMHS services are provided by Solent NHS Trust in Portsmouth, and by the Sussex trust in wider Hampshire.
Information published by both trusts reveals:
:: Just 17 per cent of children access routine treatment within four weeks in Hampshire, compared to an NHS target of 80 per cent.
:: In Portsmouth some children have been waiting for more than a year for their first contact with a CAMHS worker.
:: At the trust covering Hampshire, the chief medical officer and operating officer have carried out a ‘deep dive’ looking at waiting times and staffing.
:: Complaints about Hampshire’s duty system has seen it transferred to the NHS 111 system in a pilot.
:: But improvements indicate there has been a ‘positive reduction’ in waiting times in triage and assessment.
:: Hampshire’s provider has brought in a triage tool to cut the backlog while also increasing the team handling assessments. This is in response to complaints.
:: Extra cash poured into teams in Portsmouth has seen vacancies cut to three posts, with 13 people recruited in a year.
:: Demand for eating disorder services in Portsmouth has hit 130 per cent of the team’s capacity.
Asked about Michelle and Finley’s case, a spokesman for the Sussex trust said he could not comment on individuals.
But he said the service had seen a 21 per cent increase in referrals with the trust now having 8,653 open cases - up from 7,124 in March last year.
He said: ‘We understand how hard it is for families, children and young people who are living with a mental health condition and waiting for support and our staff are working tirelessly to assess and treat as many young people as possible.
‘We are experiencing a significant increase in need for specialist mental health support among children and young people.
‘The numbers of open referrals reflect the scale of the pressures we are experiencing.’
The trust has worked up a £6.6m investment plan to tackle the problem – in a bid to expand services and recruit 100 new staff.
The new two-year plan hopes to better work with A&E departments to work with children who are seen in an emergency, and work across weekends to see more youngsters.
Same-day assessments will be rolled out, alongside working with schools to try and prevent poor mental health.
At Solent, referrals are 25 per cent higher than pre-Covid – with demand on services including eating disorders and neurodiversity assessments.
Recruitment is a challenge, and trust board papers say there is ‘extremely fierce’ competition in Hampshire among trusts to recruit staff.
This is amid a national shortage of psychologists and mental health nurses.
Hayden Ginns, from Portsmouth CCG which commissions the CAMHS service run by Solent, said: ‘We want to ensure our children and young people have access to the support they need, when they need it and have recently provided funding to CAMHS to reduce waiting times for neurodiversity assessment, significant investment in eating disorders support, and increased joint funding for psychiatric liaison services at Queen Alexandra Hospital.
‘We do recognise the challenges faced nationally around recruitment and have recently secured funding for the next step of our work with neurodiverse children, which will allow us to add further capacity to family support and interventions.’Portsmouth runs a digital platform, called Kooth, and has teams who can help in schools.A Solent NHS spokeswoman said: ‘Demand for initial assessments has risen exponentially over the course of the pandemic.
‘It is estimated that referrals into CAMHS increased by 28 per cent nationwide during the first lockdown alone.
‘In addition to this, the complexity of need and risk for some children is greater than it has been pre-pandemic due to the understandable impact on their mental health.’It takes ‘considerable time’ to carry out assessment and treatment with multiple agencies involved, she said.