A doctor and a committee have urged Lewisham council to rethink a proposed cut to children and young people’s mental health services (CAMHS). 

Lewisham Council is planning to cut £250,000 from its contribution to CAMHS, which is delivered by South London and Maudsley (SLaM).  

The services are notoriously underfunded, with a NHS target of only 35 per cent for treating young people with a diagnosable mental health condition. 

Dr Tony O’Sullivan, from the Save Lewisham Hospital Campaign, spoke at a meeting of the children and young people’s select committee on Thursday (January 21). 

He said the cut should not go ahead, particularly in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Dr O’Sullivan said: “We understand completely the unacceptable pressures of the financial cuts imposed by Government on Lewisham Council and therefore on the population. 

“The worry is that whether the cuts are deliverable and safe for children. 

“I don’t think the cuts are safe and I don’t think the council should be saying they’re safe.  

“Looking at your cuts papers, the damage the Government is doing is literally lethal. 

“[There are] £1.5 million proposed cuts from the council with a direct or indirect impact on children.  

“Above all else, we urge the council to defend the mental health and safety of children at the current time of Covid.  

“In the papers we didn’t see a real indication of the growing impact on the mental health of children from Covid.” 

Dr Sullivan said CAMHS have historically been severely underfunded in Lewisham.  

See related: CAMHS in Lewisham underfunded compared to national average

“There have been measures to redress this and the waiting times for initial assessment for children referred to mental health services has come down. 

“However, waiting times for actual therapy are still from several months up to a year, as they were in 2018,” he said.  

He asked that the council ensures it understand the implications for children and young people before the decisions are made.  

“Covid will unleash a flood of increased need and risk, so please could you guarantee that the council’s proposed cuts to CAMHS will not lead to an even worse waiting time for actual treatment,” he said.  

Committee members also voiced concerns.

Cllr Jacq Paschoud said she was concerned the council is not being upfront about the plans.  

On the waiting times she said: “I feel concerned that we’re looking on it as a positive thing, that people are no longer being kept waiting a year for their initial assessment, when there’s an awful lot more waiting going on.” 

Cllr Paschoud said when the council talks about “management of access”, it is talking about rationing mental health services.  

“We’re talking about bringing in processes of rationing by tightening access and I feel really uncomfortable about that.  

“Also, that we are not being upfront about what that means – it means stopping people having access to services until things get really bad for them,” she said.  

Others spoke about seeing stress and anxiety first-hand in schools.  

“The sessions that I held with learners, even learners who are very organised, are saying ‘I just don’t know what I’m going to do next and I’m having anxiety attacks and panic attacks’. 

“These are people who probably two years ago would never have thought they’d be in that situaiton, and that’s happening across the country,” Cllr Hilary Moore said.  

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Pinaki Ghoshal, director for children and young people in Lewisham, told the committee that overall funding of the CAMHS budget has increased from just over £5 million to just over £7 million. 

See related: CAMHS waiting times update in Lewisham

He said: “The council’s contribution to CAMHS is small compared to the overall funding that the service receives. 

“The proposed reduction of the council contribution is offset by a greater increase in NHS contributions, so overall the funding isn’t going down.  

“Waiting times over the last few years have been constant and over the last year during the first and second wave we haven’t seen an increase in referrals for the CAMHS service.

“There’s been an increase in the percentage of referrals being accepted, so about two thirds of the referrals are accepted,” he said, adding a big part of that was down to the increase in investment.  

Mr Pinaki said no children wait for a year for their first point of contact anymore.  

“The average length of time currently is 17.4 weeks, which is still a significant length of time, but it’s not a year,” he said.  

On Covid, he said the council is looking to ensure that there are a range of services and support for children, for example in schools and the early help service.  

The committee unanimously agreed to refer the CAMHS cut “because of the unique circumstances of the ongoing pandemic and school closures”.  

The committee also unanimously agreed on the £350,000 cut to the council’s health visiting contract. 

Health visitors work with parents who have new babies, offering support and advice. 

Summarising, Cllr Octavia Holland said: “Don’t make this cut for this coming financial year. We desperately need to improve our health visitors service, improve the contract management. 

“If we can’t do that and we have to move the money to somewhere else in the public health budget, let’s have a robust plan for how that service will then reach families with 0 to two year olds.” 

The proposed budget cuts, part of £40 million planned over the next three years, are set to be finalised in February.