A Lewisham councillor made an impassioned plea to council bosses to rethink a quarter of a million pound cut to children’s mental health services in light of the pandemic. 

And the council has promised to hold on to the money it’s cutting in case there is a spike in demand when lockdown eases.

As part of a programme of cuts worth £40 million over the next three years, the council is proposing to cut £250,000 from the CAMHS budget. 

See related: CAMHS cut to be ringfenced, says Lewisham Council

The services are notoriously underfunded, with an 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 January 21 to urge the council to reverse the plans, particularly in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.   

See related: Save Lewisham Hospital urges rethink on Lewisham CAMHS cut

The committee backed a recommendation to cancel the cut for the next year. 

And on Tuesday (February 2) at a meeting of the public accounts committee, the chair of the children and young people’s select committee, Cllr Luke Sorba, warned council bosses of the dangers of cutting the service.   

He said: “It was back in December 2018 that I personally identified that over 100 Lewisham children were waiting over a year for assessment, when the average for other boroughs was seven (children). 

“I alerted the mayor and the lead member and it was following those interventions that the increased investment from the NHS arrived. 

“This investment […] managed to reduce the longest gaps between referral and assessment for Lewisham children, but it did not reduce the waiting time between assessment and treatment.  

“Treatment is the beginning of getting better. Overall, NHS mental health services have a national target of meeting 35 per cent of need – SLaM can only reach 25 per cent at the moment.  

“This is due to historic Government underfunding and a very well-evidenced climbing of mental health need amongst children over many years. 

“So even this additional investment is not sufficient to meet soaring demand.  

“Paul Farmer, the chief executive of Mind, has talked this month about huge increases in urgent and emergency referrals for crisis care and [said] the money pledged by the Government was inadequate because it was based on pre-pandemic data.” 

Cllr Sorba went on to say experts are warning about a “tsunami of mental health problems” expected as a result of the pandemic.  

He said: “We understand the need to balance the budget, but we believe that the current difficulties in accessing GP surgeries and schools being shut are preventing routes to CAMHS. 

“That’s why the referral rate is not going up, and people are not going to A&E because they are scared of catching Covid. 

“We would love to see the public accounts committee endorse our recommendation that this cut is not taken this year. 

“Not just because of the experts I’ve quoted but because dhildren themselves are telling us how sad and worried and angry they are.”  

Cllr Sorba said he understands how serious it would be if the cut wasn’t taken and urged the council to go into its non-earmarked reserves.  

“I think that is justified because CAMHS is an investment that could save money.  

“One child in care in a residential placement costs over £200,000 a year, so if you prevent one child going into care it almost pays for itself,” he said. 

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Councillor Tauseef Anwar was the only PAC member to oppose it.  

He pushed the director for children and young people on how they came to do their conclusions on demand what the council would be doing to mitigate any negative impact on young people.  

Though he praised the work the council has done on campaigning for more funding, he said the situation will get worse.  

Cllr Anwar said: “Just 14 hours ago there was a report published on BBC - a coronavirus diary of a doctor - and it says in A&E they used to have someone come in twice a week with severe mental health issues, and now they have two people every day.  

“That’s when people are scared to go to A&E. People only go to A&E when they’re really in need because of Covid. 

“We have around 200 young people in Lewisham who have got their early assessment but they are still waiting for treatment to be started.” 

Cllr Anwar echoed the words of the Royal College of Psychiatry used, and warned a “tsunami” of mental health problems are on the way.  

Cllr Chris Barnham, the cabinet member for children services and school performance, responded at the meeting.  

He said the council is focusing on early prevention and mental health support in school in a bid to reduce need.  

“In 2018 the CAMHS budget £5.2 million, it’s now £7.1 million, that’s a 36 per cent rise in three years.  

“Even if we make this cut there will be a bigger budget next year than this year,” Cllr Barnham said. 

He said: “We understand the anxiety about signs that there may be rising need. 

“But that need […] is not just addressed through a service to which you get referred by a GP. 

“Families and children need help earlier than that and in Lewisham we’re going through a really important shift in our programmes to put more emphasis on community interventions and school-based help. 

“We’re developing a new model for targeted support and youth work and that’s fundamentally about strengthening emotional well-being support for children, young people and families.  

“All of that is intended to support identifying emerging mental health and emotional well-being needs earlier, before children have to be referred by a GP.” 

Cllr Barnham added that the council has introduced mental health support children in schools.  

He said the council intends to take £250,000 from the contribution it gives to CAMHS, but will hold on to it so it can respond quickly in case the feared spike in demand after lockdown appears.  

“That gives us flexibility to address needs where they arise,” he said.  

It is unclear where the money to balance the budget would come from if a spike in demand comes about.  

But Cllr Barnham said: “It also opens up the possibility that we might be able to claim some of the money against the Government’s Covid grant. 

“Because if this is genuinely an impact of the pandemic on young people, it’s legitimate to claim it against the Covid grant.” 

Also at the meeting, Cllr John Muldoon reiterated the recommendation from the healthier communities select committee that the power of attorney service – a cut from the first round of cuts – should be provided in house.  

See related: Lewisham scrutiny committee discusses power of attorney cut

However some members were reluctant to back the requests because of concerns over using reserves and balancing the budget, so it was agreed they were simply noted.  

The cuts are set to go to mayor and cabinet on Monday.