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GP report reveals gaps in early mental health support for young people

GPs have a key role in providing advice to young people and making referrals – but are often unable to help them access early help according to new figures.

More than a quarter of young people struggling with their mental health don’t ask for help because they “don’t want to inconvenience anyone”, according to new figures from YoungMinds and The Children’s Society.

This worrying finding is part of new research by the two charities into young people’s experiences of visiting their General Practitioner (GP) with mental health concerns. It highlights how GPs have a key role to play in providing advice to young people and making referrals to specialist services – but how they are often unable to help young people struggling to access early help before things reach crisis point.

Over half of 16-25 year-olds (55%) surveyed by YoungMinds had visited their GP about their mental health at some point in their lives. [1] Yet, when asked if anything might prevent them from going to their GP if they were struggling with their mental health, more than a quarter (28%) of young people said they wouldn’t want to inconvenience anyone, and over a third (35%)  said they wouldn’t feel  their problems were bad enough to see a GP. Two-thirds (67%) said they would prefer to be able to access mental health support without going to see their GP but nearly half (47%) said they didn’t know how else to access this help.

This follows research with GPs in 2019 that revealed that many felt that there were major gaps in support for young people who didn’t meet the threshold for specialist NHS services. Worryingly, only 8% of GPs agreed that there was good community support for children and young people with emerging mental health problems in their area through youth clubs, local charities and drop-in centres [2].

“We know that many young people struggle to reach out for support with their mental health, and their GP is often the first person they speak to. GPs can play a crucial role for young people, making referrals to specialist support and working hard to provide advice and guidance. While many young people have good experiences of speaking to their GP, we found inconsistencies in their experiences. There can also be a devastating lack of options for those who are referred but are left waiting for support.

“We know how important early support is for young people who are struggling with their mental health, and this can stop the need for more specialist support later down the line. The pandemic has led to yet more pressures on young people - and despite the measures taken to improve access to NHS services, there are still gaps in providing this early support for young people.

“GPs need places to direct young people to where they can get support for their mental health without needing an appointment, even if they don’t meet the threshold for specialist services. That’s why we are calling for the Government to invest in early support hubs in every community.”
Emma Thomas, Chief Executive of YoungMinds
“Children and young people are often stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to their mental healthcare. On the one hand we have overstretched NHS services with high treatment thresholds that the vast majority of children don’t meet. On the other hand we have community provision that is an informal patchwork of services, poorly coordinated and often unsustainably funded.

“It’s truly alarming that so many children and young people are not comfortable coming forward when they need help and when they do they are unable to access early mental health support when we know it is so crucial to preventing them becoming more unwell. With all these barriers and stigma it’s even more important to make sure services are accessible and offer the warmest welcome and the best healthcare experience.

“We need to support GPs but we must also ensure properly funded early support hubs are available for those whose needs aren’t met by specialist NHS services.”
Mark Russell, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society
"When a young person comes forward regarding their mental health, it has taken a significant step for them to do this and many of these young people will not reach the threshold for Children and Young People’s Mental Health Services. It is common for young people to be referred and rejected a number of times, as they repeatedly fall below the threshold for CAMHS services.

“In my experience as a GP a 10 minute appointment is not long enough to do a full holistic assessment on a young person and many GP’s lack the necessary training in adolescent health.

“I believe that being able to offer a service within the community that is easily accessible for young people by providing online appointment booking and drop in slots that young people can access on their own or with a parent would radically improve the wellbeing and mental health care of children across the country. Having run a service of this kind since 2018 I can see the benefits to our local young people who have accessed the service and would be strongly in support of more local health hubs for young people across the country.”
Dr Fiona Smith GP and clinical lead Footsteps Youth Wellbeing (a hub for 11-19 year olds in Stockton)

YoungMinds and The Children’s society are calling for a renewed focus on early intervention by supporting young people with their mental health much earlier - and before their needs escalate to the point of needing specialist support. Their recommendations include:

  • Create a network of early support hubs for young people’s mental health
  • Improve access to NHS children and young people’s mental health services
  • Embed the principles of a youth-friendly practice in GP surgeries across the country to improve accessibility for children and young people.
  • Provide additional training for GPs and surgery staff on children and young people’s mental health
  • Ensure that GPs and other professionals are aware of services and support options for young people’s mental health
  • Enable families to support young people who are experiencing mental ill health

For more information, case studies or to arrange an interview contact the media teams at YoungMinds and The Children’s Society:

Email: press@youngminds.org.uk /media@childrenssociety.org.uk

Call: 0203 861 2072 for YoungMinds / 0207 8414422 for The Children’s Society

[1] YoungMinds commissioned research agency Censuswide to survey 2,005 young people aged 16-25 years old. 55% of respondents said that they had visited their GP about a mental health concern at some point in their lives. This does not mean that 55% of young people have had a diagnosable mental health condition: many may have spoken to their GP about sub-clinical needs, including for example low mood, self-esteem issues, sleepless nights, concerns about loneliness, worries about food or appearance or stress related to a physical condition.

All respondents live in the UK and include responses from young people living in Wales (4%), Scotland (5%) and Northern Ireland (2%). The majority of survey respondents were female (66%). 67% of respondents reported being White; 12% of respondents were of an Asian ethnicity, 9% reported being Black and 7% were of mixed ethnicity. Based on this, and the sampling method, the data cannot be considered to be representative. As the survey was completed online, some young people without appropriate access to technology are less likely to have completed it.

[2] YoungMinds commissioned a survey through the medical research company MedeConnect with 1,008 GPs across the UK during October 2019. The sample was regionally representative and all respondents were practising GPs.

[3] GP Champions for Youth Mental Health Project Toolkit.

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