24% Increase in Children Attending A&E with Mental Health Crisis

7 February 2022 News
24% Increase in Children Attending A&E with Mental Health Crisis - Cover

On Children’s Mental Health Week, Professor Siobhan O’Neill, Mental Health Champion for Northern Ireland and Koulla Yiasouma, Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY), together call on decision makers to deliver improvements to mental health services and provide supports that have positive and visible impacts on children’s lives.

It comes as the Children’s Commissioner releases her 3rd review of how Government is progressing her 2018 ‘Still Waiting’ report which made recommendations to improve mental health supports and services for children and young people across NI.

Koulla Yiasouma said: “I acknowledge the commitment and seriousness the cross government departmental group has shown in implementing the Still Waiting Action Plan, under very challenging circumstances. However, I have to state my disappointment at the limited progress on actions which would make a tangible difference to children and young people’s emotional wellbeing and mental health.”

Professor Siobhan O’Neill said: “Before the pandemic children and young people in Northern Ireland were 25% more likely to have mental health difficulties than their counterparts in other regions. Research shows that their mental health has been more heavily impacted by the pandemic and the restrictions than any other age group.

Several studies have demonstrated increases in mental health symptoms in children and young people, and stress in parents, with the very highest levels of difficulties seen among children and young people with disabilities and special educational needs, and in low-income households.

Service providers are also reporting an alarming increase in the numbers of children and young people who are seeking mental health interventions, and more young people presenting with very severe symptoms”.

Data obtained by the Children’s Commissioner include:

  • Since 2018 there has been a year-on-year increase in referrals to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) from Emergency Departments (ED) for young people presenting during a mental health crisis. Between 2019/20 and 2020/21 these have increased by 24% (from 765 to 949).
  • In November 2021, 451 children were waiting over 9 weeks for their first appointment with Step 3[i] services, – a substantial increase from March 2021 when the figure was 167.
  • In 2020/ 21, 40% (4344) of children and young people were discharged from CAMHS without their goal being fully achieved, this includes 26% (1811) that disengaged from the service before treatment or intervention was complete.
  • The number of under 18’s waiting more than 13 weeks to access Child Psychology increased from 87 in 2018 to 271 in 2021 and those waiting more than 13 weeks for Children’s Learning Disability services rose from 59 in 2018 to 370 in 2021.[1]

Professor Siobhan O’Neill explains why improvements are needed, and the importance of fully implementing the Mental Health Strategy:

“Our Mental Health Strategy is strong and, if implemented fully, will lead to the transformation in services required to meet the needs of the population here and deliver a single regional mental health service.

To move forward with all the actions in the Mental Health Strategy, a 34% increase in the funding for mental health services is needed overall. Along with many major mental health charities in Northern Ireland, I have been calling for this increase through the #PlugTheGap Campaign.”

Both the Children’s Commissioner and the Mental Health Champion welcome plans to increase specific CAMHS funding over the coming years from £2.5 million in 2022-23, £4 million in 2023-24 to £7 million in 2024-25.[2] This is in line with the commitment made in the Mental Health Strategy 2021-2031 to increase CAMHS funding to 10% of adult funding.

Koulla explained: “This, and any future funding, is subject to Executive Approval and the 10% benchmark is not based on a detailed exercise which maps out current services against need so funding can be injected into the right services.

Professor O’Neill concluded: “Very high numbers of our children and young people are suffering right now and are unable to access interventions and support. Childhood is a period of rapid brain development; mental health interventions in this age group are time critical because they influence mental illness and other important outcomes across the lifespan. The improvements to mental health services for this group are therefore extremely urgent.”

Koulla concluded: “During pre-pandemic times it was clear that the mental health system was unable to meet the scale and range of needs, and the increasing mental health need since the pandemic makes investment and reform in mental health services for children an even more urgent priority.”


This year’s theme for Children’s Mental Health Week is ‘Growing Together’. Exploring how children and adults can help others to grow.

Children’s Commissioner, Koulla Yiasouma, will present the findings of her monitoring report to a joint Education and Health Committee session on Wednesday 9th February.

[1] These figs cover only 2 types of psychological services- there will be other services that children are waiting for which data is not available for.

[2] Information provided by DoH- 03.02.22.