close up of a girl with long hair and one hand on chin listening to a person in front of her

Parents' guide to CAMHS

A guide for parents and carers about NHS mental health support for children and young people, known as CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) or CYPMHS (Children and Young People's Mental Health Services), including how to access and work with services.

What is CAMHS or CYPMHS?

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CAMHS is a free NHS service that helps children and young people with emotional, behavioural and mental health difficulties.

The service provides support and treatment, including individual and family therapy, medication, staying in hospital (inpatient care) and parenting support courses. CAMHS teams also diagnose neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism and ADHD (though in some areas this may be through paediatric teams instead).

CAMHS teams include psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, nurses, social workers and other professionals who specialise in working with children and families. Our glossary explains the different roles.

The newer term CYPMHS may also be used. This includes CAMHS and non-NHS organisations supporting children with emotional wellbeing and mental health in your area, such as charities, schools and local authorities. On this page we will use the term CAMHS.

What kinds of problems can CAMHS help with?

CAMHS offers support for a wide range of emotional and behavioural difficulties, neurodevelopmental and mental health conditions including anxiety, depression, self-harm, violent or angry behaviour, eating disorders, the effects of abuse or trauma, obsessions and compulsions, psychosis, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

For more information about these and other conditions, take a look at our A-Z mental health guide.

Parents A-Z mental health guide

How to get help from CAMHS

The first step is referral to your local CAMHS service. If they accept the referral, your child and you (if your child is under 16) will be invited to an assessment with mental health professionals. The team will consider your child’s symptoms as well as the wider picture within the family and at school. You, your child and the CAMHS team will then discuss whether treatment is needed and, if so, what this should be. There are usually waiting lists for both initial assessment and then treatment.

Find your local CAMHS service

CAMHS services are locally run (and also vary across the nations of the UK). The service in your area should have its own website, listing referral and contact details. Find this online by looking up ‘name of your local authority and CAMHS’ or ask your GP surgery for contact details.

CAMHS referral and waiting lists

Referral

A child’s GP usually makes the referral, but it can also come from school, a health visitor, or a youth or social worker. Self-referrals, by you or the young person, may also be accepted. Look on the website or call to see if this is an option in your area. But make sure that only one referral is made, to avoid extra delay and confusion.

Depending on your child’s age, state of mind and the nature of the concerns, you can discuss the referral with the GP, or your child could see them with you or alone.

Some areas use a Single Point of Access (SPA) system to process all mental health and emotional wellbeing referrals. Some referrals may be directed to other services such as Early Help (local authority early intervention support for young people and families), for instance if an issue is deemed mild or emerging.

CAMHS services are divided into tiers, with thresholds to determine access, and these may be referred to in your communication with them. Early intervention services are tier two, while specialist support for more complex issues is tier three. Contact has more information about CAMHS tiers.

  • Give detailed information

    Give the referring professional as much information as possible, including how long your child’s difficulties have lasted; how they affect their day-to-day life (education, sleep, eating and relationships); and other relevant experiences such as family bereavement or separation.

  • Share professional evidence

    You can ask other professionals working with your child, such as the school Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO), to write a letter supporting the referral with more information and context.

  • Check the referral pathway

    Ask what the referral is for, where it will go and for the contact details. For instance, is it for a neurodevelopmental assessment (e.g. for autism or ADHD) or another issue?

Waiting lists

Parents often tell us waiting lists are very long and that they have little information about when their child will be seen. Understandably, this can be worrying and frustrating. In this guide, we have suggestions for ways to support your child while they wait.

Waiting lists for both assessment and treatment vary by area, and the most urgent cases are prioritised. You could contact your local service to check your child’s referral has arrived and ask for an update on waiting times.

NHS guidelines[i]aim for most non-urgent referrals to be assessed within six weeks, with treatment offered within 18 weeks. Young people with psychosis should be seen within two weeks, and those with eating disorders within four weeks (24 hours if an emergency or one week if urgent). In reality these targets are often missed, but you may find it helpful to be aware of them.

Always tell your GP and CAMHS if your child’s mental health worsens while on the waiting list, as they may need to be seen more quickly.

How to find urgent help in a crisis

  • If you are worried that your child is at immediate risk of harm or cannot keep themselves safe, or if they have already been injured, call 999 or take them to A&E.
  • If a health professional has given you a crisis number and the situation is not life threatening, call them.
  • If your child is under the care of CAMHS or another mental health team and has a crisis plan for urgent care, follow this.
  • You can also call your 24-hour local NHS mental health helpline or 111 for urgent advice.
I wanted help for my daughter immediately. I was shocked and frightened at having to wait a long time, as was she. Exploring resources and feeling we were doing something really helped us as parents to cope as well.
a parent

What to expect at a CAMHS assessment and how to prepare

Preparing for a CAMHS assessment

Preparing can reduce your child’s worries (and yours) about assessment, help you both feel more in control and ensure the CAMHS team gets as detailed a picture of your child’s needs as possible.

Explain why they are seeing CAMHS and what to expect.  Listen to any concerns they have about their mental health or about CAMHS. Try to talk positively and calmly, emphasising how this process should help them feel better. Your child may find it helpful to read our young person's guide to CAMHS.

Young person's guide to CAMHS

Make notes on the question areas listed in the 'what happens at a CAMHS assessment' section of this page. A diary of a typical and/or bad day can be helpful. List questions you want to ask, for instance on waiting times, types of therapy or medication and length of treatment, as it is easy to forget things during an appointment.

Understand that getting help may be very hard for your child. If they struggle to articulate their thoughts or engage, suggest they make notes or text their concerns to you. If possible, agree on the most important points. Encourage them to speak for themselves, but offer to do so for them if they can’t. Our guide has suggestions for helping young people to talk about their mental health.

How to talk to your child about mental health

CAMHS may ask you, your child or their teachers to fill in questionnaires in advance.

Continue to collect relevant information from school or other professionals while you wait for assessment.

Several professionals may be involved in supporting your child. Our glossaries about the roles of different mental health professionals and some of the language that may be used may make the process seem less intimidating or confusing.

Glossary

Leave plenty of time to get to the assessment and make sure you have any paperwork you need, to reduce anxiety for you and your child.

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Young people tell us it helps when their parents and carers:

  • listen and trust that their child knows how they feel
  • stay calm and let their own emotions out somewhere else
  • let their child know they’re proud of them for getting help
  • are sensitive about escalating concerns
It was really important for my daughter that we talked about the referral and assessment in advance. She needed to be in tune with what was happening to reduce her anxiety.
a parent
Before the assessment agree with your child what information they want to convey and whether they want you to talk for them. And try to go in with an open mind.
a parent

What happens at a CAMHS assessment?

The initial appointment, with one or more of the CAMHS team, usually lasts around one hour and takes place in the CAMHS clinic. Assessments may be virtual, so let CAMHS know if this will be difficult for you or your child.

You can also request an interpreter if you or your child is not confident speaking English.

Depending on your child’s age and wishes, the CAMHS professionals will speak to you and your child together and/or separately. If your child is 16 or over, the CAMHS team will ask your child if they want you to be present. Teenagers sometimes find it easier to talk openly about their mental health without a parent so try not to take this decision personally. 

The team may want to observe your child while they play or undertake an activity. Information from other professionals who have worked with your child (such as teachers, school SENCO, GP or social worker) will also be considered.

At the assessment the CAMHS team may ask about:

  • the difficulties your child is having and when they started
  • their impact on your child’s daily life and on your family
  • your child’s mood
  • any patterns in their emotions or behaviour
  • your child’s developmental history
  • medical history and any previous mental health issues
  • family life and friendships
  • school
  • traumatic experiences such as bereavement, separation, abuse or other difficulties
  • involvement with other agencies, such as social services or Early Help
  • what your child and you think might help
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What happens next?

The CAMHS team will use all this information to understand your child’s needs, assess risks and develop a treatment plan. They will try to involve you and your child in this process, taking your views into account.

You and your child’s GP will be sent a report outlining the findings, any specific diagnoses and plan. This could be treatment with the same CAMHS team, referral to another team (for instance if a neurodevelopmental condition such as autism is suspected), referral to Early Help or other services, or your child may be discharged.

What if your child is not offered treatment by CAMHS?

It can be upsetting, frustrating and worrying if CAMHS does not offer treatment, particularly if your child has been waiting a long time, or you feel that their mental health is worsening.

You can ask CAMHS to explain their decision. They should provide details of other organisations or resources that you could look into, alongside the possibilities listed here. If you are unsure about the best options, ask CAMHS for more information, or discuss with your GP.

Keep gathering evidence about your child’s needs. This may help you find support and ensure that the information about your child is up to date.

  • Don’t exclude any options and pursue every avenue. Talk to other parents, especially someone who might be able to give you advice about what’s available in your local area or in the regional area.
    a parent
  • If you're in school, then talk to your pastoral team as they often have people dedicated to supporting mental health and might be able to help make school easier or less pressure for you.
    a young person

How to find other support for your child

If your child is not offered treatment by CAMHS, or needs support while on a waiting list, there are other options including voluntary organisations and charities, private counselling and therapy services, as well as online support and apps your child can access directly. Here are some of the other ways you may be able to find help for your child.

Your GP or school may be able to refer to other services offering support, such as Early Help, children’s wellbeing practitioners or educational mental health practitioners.

Ask the SENCO or pastoral team if they offer counselling or other school-based emotional support, either directly or with a charity such as Place2Be

Local authorities are required to set out provision for young people with special educational needs and disabilities in their area. This may include organisations offering counselling or therapy. (Find your local authority website for details here.)

Speak to your CAMHS service first if your child is in treatment or on their waiting list, as private care may mean CAMHS treatment is withdrawn. Be aware that therapists and counsellors cannot make clinical diagnoses. Before using a private service for diagnosis of a condition such as ADHD, ASD or dyspraxia, check with your child’s school whether a private diagnosis will be recognised to access support.

Encourage healthy routines, social contact, exercise and activities. We have techniques that can help your child feel calmer at times of anxiety and ideas for practical ways to support young people with different conditions and difficulties in our parents’ guides.

For more detailed information on supporting your child's mental health see our parents' guide to support.

Getting help for your child

Supporting your child through CAMHS treatment

Tips for working with CAMHS

  • Collaborate

    Try to work in partnership with the professionals. Remember you all want the best outcome for your child.

  • Ask questions

    If you are unsure of something, or you don’t understand or agree, ask questions and request explanations. Trust your instincts – you know your child.

  • Take time for decisions

    Don’t feel pressured into instant decisions. You and your child are entitled to consider and agree to plans (unless your child has been sectioned under the Mental Health Act). Ask about alternatives if you aren’t sure.

  • Sum up plans

    End meetings by summing up the plan and next steps if possible.

  • Keep notes

    Write everything down, including professionals’ names and contact details in a dedicated notebook. Confirm plans and strategies by email and request a response.

  • Give strategies time to work

    Give strategies, types of support and different professionals a chance, even if something’s not working straight away.

A young boy sitting on a sofa looking up at his mum

Young people tell us it helps when their parents and carers:

  • are confident to ask questions of the professionals when necessary and use direct and straight language
  • don’t give up on getting help
  • describe what it’s like on the worst day – not just today or this week
  • know their legal rights and the government's NICE guidelines
  • remember they can attend appointments with their child

 

What if your child won't engage with CAMHS?

Sometimes children and young people are unable or reluctant to engage with assessment or treatment, or they refuse entirely. This is very difficult for parents and can make it hard for CAMHS professionals to offer the best support quickly.

The tips on this page under 'preparing for the assessment' may help your child feel more informed, in control and comfortable with the process. Listen to their concerns if they can articulate them, try to reassure, but don’t try to force treatment - this can make engagement even harder.

MindEd has more advice for parents on working with mental health professionals, including if your child won’t engage, in their online learning module Speaking Up For Your Child.

 

Parents have told us some of the things they have found helpful:

  • My son refused to engage, but the psychiatrist built the length of time they spoke up very slowly, from just a few minutes at first. After a few appointments it did get easier.
  • Our appointments were over Zoom and it actually worked well for my son because the environment was familiar. Sometimes he even played the piano during them which helped him to relax and open up.
  • Talking to the psychotherapist made my daughter very anxious and unable to respond so she was offered art therapy instead. She felt much more comfortable and able to communicate and it really helped her recovery.

How much information are parents given about their child's CAMHS treatment?

CAMHS services work with families, but they also try to respect the child’s wishes about confidentiality and parental involvement, particularly for older children.

If your child is under 16 you are legally responsible for them and, in most cases, you will be invited to their appointments and both you and your child will be asked to discuss and consent to treatment. CAMHS professionals might suggest your child is sometimes seen alone if they are comfortable with this.

Both you and your child can request that certain information is not shared, including with each other, but the CAMHS team cannot maintain confidentiality if they believe anyone is being harmed or at risk.

If your child is 16 or over, they have a legal right to privacy and they can refuse treatment (though this decision can be over-ruled by courts). You may not automatically be involved in treatment planning by CAMHS and your consent is not needed, but your child can ask for you to be included.

Once your child is 18 their care will be transferred to adult mental health services (AMHS). Our guide for young people has information about this for you and your child.

 

Young person's guide to CAMHS

What to do if you are unhappy with CAMHS

If you are unhappy with your child’s care, start by raising your concerns with the CAMHS team. You could request that your child sees a different professional if this might help. You can also ask for an independent advocate for you or your child.

If you want to make a formal complaint in writing, use the process set out on your CAMHS website. Your local NHS Trust will also have a Patients Advisory Liaison Service (PALS) that can provide guidance.

Where to find further support

  • MindEd for Families

    Information and e-learning resources about mental health for parents and carers, including advice on working with mental health services.

  • Hub of Hope

    A national database of mental health charities and organisations across Britain that offer mental health advice, including for family members.

  • Rethink Mental Illness

    Information and practical help on mental illness, medication, care and law. They have a helpline and webchat service.

    You can also find support groups near you using their group finder.  

    Opening times:
    Advice line: Monday - Friday, 1pm-4pm; Webchat: Monday-Friday, 9:30am – 4pm
  • Mind Infoline

    Offers advocacy services, and information and signposting on mental health difficulties, local treatment.

    Opening times:
    9am - 6pm, Monday to Friday (except for bank holidays)
  • Mind Legal Line

    Provides information and advice on mental health law, including being detained, mental capacity, community care and discrimination and equality.

    Opening times:
    9am - 6pm, Monday to Friday (except for bank holidays)

You might also find this helpful

Read blogs from young people about their experiences of CAMHS referrals, assessments and care.