Turning digital: How online platforms can help to alleviate the CAMHS crisis


Heledd Davies, Clinical Services Manager, Big White Wall shares her views on how mental health provision for youngsters can be aided by digital resources

There is no doubt that there is currently a mental health crisis amongst the UK’s younger population. The number of referrals made to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) in England has increased by over a quarter (26 per cent) over the past five years. As a result, there has been a plethora of news stories in recent months stressing the shortcomings of CAMHS services, but without much suggestion of a solution.

Enhancing access

One of the biggest problems facing CAMHS is access. In fact, a recent FOI request conducted by the BBC’s Panorama program revealed that more than 1.5 million under-18s in England do not live in areas where they have access to around-the-clock child mental health care. Statistics from NHS England showed that in 2017/18, 1,039 children and adolescents were forced to receive treatment in a ‘non-local bed’. In some extreme cases, young people have been forced to receive treatment over 285 miles away from home.

Even for those who do have access to 24/7 mental health support, the waits can be extensive. A study conducted by the Education Policy Institute revealed that in 2017/18 there was a median waiting time of 34 days just to receive an initial assessment. In many cases, this increased to up to 60 days to actually start treatment.

There is a huge disparity in provision between different locations across the country, with children in London facing an average wait of up to 64 days. These waiting times far exceed the new standard of four weeks (28 days) set out in the government’s recent green paper on children’s mental health care provisions.  This is where using digital platforms can really make a difference – by leveling the playing field, and neutralising the current postcode lottery faced by young people who are waiting for mental health support all across the UK.

Filling the void

Another key area experiencing problems within the UK’s health service is how to provide for young people suffering from poor mental wellbeing while transitioning into adulthood. Currently, young people receiving support from CAMHS can be faced with difficult transitions into adult services.

Recent estimates have suggested that more than 25,000 young people transition from CAMHS to adult services each year, with as little four per cent receiving the ‘ideal’ transition. This is largely due to the age-based criteria currently used to determine whether young people qualify for adult services – which can leave young people entirely cut off from support altogether. While NHS England has announced plans to significantly transform and expand access to its mental health services, it is expected that this transformation program will not take effect until at least 2021 – and in the meantime too many young people will continue to fall into the mental health gap.

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Moving from CAMHS to AMHS can be like entering a whole new world. Whether it be the treatment you receive, the person giving the treatment, or even travelling to an unfamiliar location to receive treatment – there’s a lot to adjust to very suddenly. Supplementing existing mental health services with online platforms can alleviate this problem by providing familiarity and continuity to young people through this difficult period. Once someone has signed up to an online service, it can be the consistent source of support, whatever the complexities of the route into adult services

Moving away from medicalisation

Digital platforms can also help to shift the way in which mental health issues are being treated. There’s wide agreement that in future greater stress should be placed on prevention, early intervention and self-management tools – rather than treatment methods. It’s hoped that this will help alleviate the pressure placed on healthcare services struggling to cope with the high demand. It is also important that we work hard not to medicalise young people’s concerns when they do seek support. We don’t necessarily need to direct them straight to protocol-driven therapies.

Heledd Davies

A safe supplementary service

Traditional healthcare services should always remain the first port of call, but there is no reason why these services should not be supplemented with new alternatives. It is still really important to access NHS services and support, especially when it comes to getting an assessment. This can help young people fully understand what is going on, however it is important that we adapt our support networks, so they are fit for purpose for the younger generation. Young people in the UK are some of the most prolific internet users in the world – with over a third (37.7 per cent) of Britain’s 15+ year old’s spending more than six hours a day online – so it makes sense to use the very medium young people are familiar with.

Increasingly, more and more young people are using the online communities and digital platforms they are part of, such as social media, games, and online forums to ask their peers for support. This can be largely due to a fear of being judged for using traditional methods of support. Reaching out to someone and sharing should always be encouraged, no matter how they do it. Rather than continue to eagerly criticise the internet for all its negatives, it’s imperative that we work to ensure the online platforms young people are choosing to use are safe, supportive and informative. The online world is here to stay and it’s time we made better use of young people’s desired platforms to support their mental wellbeing.

About the author

With well over 100 years experience between us, we've been around the editorial and medical blocks a few times. But we're still as keen as any young pup to root out what's new and inspiring.

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