Thousands of children aged 10 and under are being treated for depression, stress and anxiety, an investigation by the Daily Mirror has revealed.
Tormented by bullies, under pressure to fit in and bombarded with school assessments, many youngsters today find themselves struggling to cope.
Savage Coalition cuts to the network of support for affected youngsters means many end up needing hospital treatment because their psychological problems have spiralled out of control – piling more pressure on NHS budgets.
A worrying 4,391 children aged 10 or under have received treatment for stress, anxiety or depression in the last five years, according to figures from two of Britain’s biggest NHS mental health trusts. But the total number of primary school pupils affected is likely to be far higher.
Yet two-thirds of local authorities have had to slash their budgets for early intervention schemes such as educational psychologists, social workers and parenting, programmes services, since the Tory-led Coalition came to power in 2010.
The YoungMinds mental health charity urged the Government to stop cutting vital funding to support networks in a bid to prevent a child psychology crisis.
Campaigns chief Lucie Russell said: “An increase in under-11s needing mental health services is a sad and very worrying indictment of the society we live in and the pressures children face.
“Every day we hear about the unprecedented toxic climate young people face in a 24/7 online culture where they can never switch off, where they experience constant assessments at school, bullying, sexualisation, consumerism and pressure to have the perfect body at a young age.
“This leads to thousands of young people including children suffering a range of mental health problems such as anxiety, extreme stress and depression as these statistics show.
“The World Health Organisation estimate that by 2030 depression is going to be the biggest health problem in the Western world and so we are sitting on a ticking timebomb.
“That’s why it is vital we take responsibility for the stress we are loading on to children and act now to provide support for them when they need it.
“This means stopping yet more cuts to early intervention support services, ensuring there is more support for young people in schools who are struggling, making resilience-building a key part of the curriculum and increasing the budget for children and young people’s mental health services, which is currently only a measly 0.7% of the overall NHS budget.”
South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, one of the biggest mental health trusts in the UK which admits children from across the country, treated 814 children 10 and under last year.
And South Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust looked after 102 youngsters in that age group over the same period. This is more than double the figure from 2008.
We asked eight other major NHS mental health trusts for figures but they did not have the data available specifically relating to stress, anxiety and depression.
Former Health Secretary Alan Johnson, who has called for a Health Select Committee investigation into our findings, said: “What you have uncovered is shocking. It is clear children are increasingly having to receive NHS care because of cuts to child and adolescent mental health budgets.”
In his Hull constituency, the only overnight mental health unit for children and adolescents has recently been shut. As a result, one young girl suffering stress had to be sent to a unit in Cheshire – more than 100 miles away from her family. Another local girl had to be treated in Newcastle.
Mr Johnson added: “Children are failing to get the support they need early on in their community, which only stores up problems for the future. And then when they need NHS care, many are having to travel hours away to get help.
“It is going to be to the detriment of that child’s mental health. Mental health is the poor relation of the NHS.
“Inpatient facilities need to be reopened so children can get help close to home, and councils need to provide services to help prevent so many needing care in the first place. We should not be in a position where thousands of under-11s need NHS treatment.”
Labour MP Diana Johnson said: “Early intervention is the key. If symptoms are not acted upon quickly enough, through support programmes, children can grow up anxious and stressed, which can lead to them suffering serious mental health problems for the rest of their life.
“These are often the most vulnerable children in our society. It is essential we act to give them a future free of mental health problems.”
Emily Simonoff, academic director for child and adolescent mental health services at South London and Maudsley, said: “Depression and anxiety are common. Many experience the milder forms and the more severe are rare.
“However, they are both important to recognise and treat as they can cause significant functional impairment in school work, social relationships and enjoyment of leisure.”
Social workers, educational psychologists and parenting programmes provide a vital safety net for children at risk of developing problems. They can identify early warning signs of mental health risks and set into motion therapy and counselling that keeps youngsters out of hospital.
But of 51 councils that responded to a freedom of information request by YoungMinds, 34 said they had slashed spending on children and adolescent mental health services since 2010.
Derby city council has cut its budget by 41%, Norfolk by 35% and Redcar and Cleveland by 27%. In London, Ealing, Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster councils have reduced their youth mental health budgets by 10%.
But Care Minister Norman Lamb insisted the Government is spending on mental health and admitted it was “totally unacceptable to disadvantage mental health when allocating funds”.
He added: “We are investing £54million in improving access to therapy treatments for children. I have always been clear mental health must be treated with equal importance as physical health.”
Case study 1: Seven-year-old suffers with anxiety
Ben suffers from anxiety which has developed in the year since his parents separated.
He is losing interest at school and finds it hard to concentrate. Teachers have noticed he can be withdrawn and tends to sit on his own.
He finds it difficult to communicate with his friends and sometimes they fall out.
At home, Ben’s family have noticed he has become quiet and emotional. He can be clingy and cries for the slightest thing.
He has complained he thinks he is “stupid” and “ugly”.
Ben has become reluctant to visit his dad’s new home. His mum often has to put him in the car screaming and crying.
At his dad’s, he refuses to speak or participate and says he dislikes the four-year-old daughter of his dad’s new partner.
He is often rude to his grandparents when they pick him up from school. And they are no longer able to motivate him to do things he used to enjoy – like walking the dog. Sometimes he lashes out at them.
Ben has now been seeing a child psychotherapist for two months but refuses to speak or engage in sessions. He just sits silently and shrugs his shoulders.
Case study 2: Ten-year-old fears new school
Laura is extremely bright but she finds going to primary school tough.
She is starting secondary school next year but is suffering from anxiety and stress because of the looming change.
Laura has friends at primary school but can struggle to fit in socially, especially at playtime.
She was bullied, called names and pushed around, causing her to stay away from school and miss nearly two terms. She then developed symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder.
Laura became upset if certain things were out of place and was unable to touch door handles she felt others had touched.
Her primary school was unable to cope and referred her to a psychologist. She began to improve but then became increasingly worked up about going to secondary school.
She refuses to discuss the schools on offer with her parents.
Laura has become defiant at home and school and can be verbally abusive and physically aggressive at home, which is totally out of character.
She says sometimes she thinks life is not worth living.
The names of both children and some details have been changed.