The number of children in England needing treatment for serious mental health problems has risen by 39% in a year, official data shows.
Experts say the pandemic, social inequality, austerity and online harm are all fuelling a crisis in which NHS mental health treatment referrals for under-18s have increased to more than 1.1m in 2021-22.
In 2020-21 – the first year of the pandemic – the figure was 839,570, while in 2019-20 there were 850,741 referrals, according to analysis of official figures by the PA Media.
The figures include children who are suicidal, self-harming, suffering serious depression or anxiety, and those with eating disorders.
Dr Elaine Lockhart, chair of the child and adolescent psychiatry faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said the rise in referrals reflected a “whole range” of illnesses.
She said “specialist services are needing to respond to the most urgent and the most unwell”, including young people suffering from psychosis, suicidal thoughts and severe anxiety disorder.
Lockhart said targets for seeing children urgently with eating disorders were sliding “completely” and that more staff were needed.
“I think what’s frustrating for us is [that] if we could see them more quickly and intervene, then the difficulties might not become as severe as they do because they’ve had to wait,” she added.
Lockhart said children’s mental health had been getting worse before the pandemic, with increasing social inequality, austerity and online harm playing a role.
“When the lockdowns and pandemic struck, that really had such a negative effect on a lot of children,” she added. “Those who had been doing well became vulnerable and those were vulnerable became unwell.
“And part of that was about children themselves feeling very untethered from the day-to-day life that supports them … but also seeing their own parents struggle, and then that collective heightened sense of anxiety and loss of control we all had really affected children.”
Tom Madders, director of campaigns at YoungMinds, said the figures were “deeply concerning”, adding: “The last year has been one of the most difficult for this age group, emerging from the pandemic to more limited prospects for their futures, coupled with an increase in academic pressure to catch up on lost learning, and the impact of the cost of living crisis.
“The current state of play cannot continue. The government must get a grip of the situation.”
Meanwhile, separate NHS Digital data shows hospital admissions for eating disorders are rising among children. Among under-18s, there were 7,719 admissions in 2021-22, up from 6,079 the previous year and 4,232 in 2019-20 – an 82% rise across two years.
The NSPCC described the figures as “alarming”.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are already investing £2.3bn a year into mental health services, meaning an additional 345,000 children and young people will be able to access support by 2024 – and we’re aiming to grow the mental health workforce by 27,000 more staff by this time too.”