A suicidal young girl had to wait three months for therapy in Lewisham, a doctor told the council as he argued against a proposed cut to the service.  

The details emerged at a meeting of mayor and cabinet on February 3, during which the budget for next year was approved, along with £40 million worth of cuts over the next three years.  

See related: Lewisham Cllr asks council to hold off on CAMHS cut

The plans include a £250,000 cut to the council’s contribution to children and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS).  

The cut was approved, though the council said it will ringfence the money in case there is surge in need.  

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Dr Tony O’Sullivan, from the Save Lewisham Hospital Campaign, spoke at the meeting and said he understands the “unacceptable pressures and financial cuts imposed by the Government on the council”.  

“But I want to highlight the reality of mental health needs and the need for frontline expertise. 

“I want to start with the story of a young person who became very unwell, suicidal, and highly anxious. 

“Back then they were assessed within weeks but then had a very difficult wait of three months for therapy, during which time they had to attend A&E with emergencies on two occasions.  

“One parent had to work part-time to be around more at home to look after their child, and the other, an NHS staff member, did longer days to get a day squeezed out so that they could be at home to watch and wait.  

“They said that if the wait had been any longer, ‘I would have to go off sick or leave my NHS job – I used to drive to work and feel physically ill from the strain of it’.  

“‘Those were three dark months trying to keep my child safe’,” Dr O’Sullivan said, breaking down into tears.  

He explained that the CAMHS treatment for the young person went on for three years, supporting the family through a “very dark place”. 

“For a while their life would not have been worth living otherwise, but they were in the safe, experienced hands of CAMHS staff. 

“The CAMHS intervention has been a life safer for the young person, who is now back into music, back with a band writing songs, and at college. CAMHS saved their life,” Dr O’Sullivan said.  

He said in the last few weeks the council has argued waiting lists have come down, but said that the wait for appointments has reduced, not the wait for therapy.  

“It is crucial to know that the access to therapy in Lewisham is up to a year waiting time,” Dr O’Sullivan said.  

He said: “I’ve heard comments that there has been no increased demand on CAMHS during the pandemic.  

“Families have had a much harder time reaching GPs – the council knows that – and therefore referrals have gone down. 

“We also know that cancer referrals have fallen, but cancer hasn’t gone away. 

“Fewer families have access to GPs, but there are not fewer children in distress. 

“The comment that it is not possible to predict future CAMHS needs during Covid is not true, the need has gone from one in nine children with mental health needs to one in six.” 

The cut was also discussed at a meeting of the public accounts committee on Tuesday.  

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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.  

At the same meeting the chair of the children and young people’s select committee, Cllr Luke Sorba, asked that the council holds off on the cut until the impact of the pandemic is known.  

The cabinet member for children’s services and schools performance, Cllr Chris Barnham, told Dr O’Sullivan what he said at PAC – that the council would ringfence the £250,000 in case there is a surge in demand.  

“We intend to […] keep it as a contingency under the council’s control. We want to have the flexibility to address needs where they arise,” he said.  

He said NHS funding for CAMHS has gone up by 36 per cent in the last three years and that the council is focusing on early prevention and mental health support in schools in a bid to reduce need.     

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’s also important to note that we may be able to claim funds against central Government’s Covid grant if this genuinely is an impact of the pandemic.”