Seventy children are treated at A&E for mental illness every day – four times as many as ten years ago.
Shameful statistics reveal 26,582 under-18s were rushed to casualty units in England and treated for psychiatric problems in the year to the end of April.
The year before it was 22 per cent lower, at 21,814. And 10 years ago, the number was a comparatively low 6,192.
The distressing figures cover children with conditions such as depression, anxiety, eating irregularities, personality disorders and addictive behaviours.
Experts say children should never end up in the emergency wards because early intervention should have taken place.
Rising levels of poverty, loneliness, social media pressures and poor future prospects could be contributing to more kids suffering from psychiatric problems.
Lib Dem MP Norman Lamb, a former health minister, said the NHS Digital figures were “deeply disturbing” and showed children were being let down.
He added: “By investing in prevention we can reduce the number of children who end up in a hospital bed.”
Richard Crellin, policy manager for The Children’s Society, said treatment waiting times were too long. He said: “Children experiencing issues with mental health should never end up in A&E. It’s a failure of the system that they do.
“Long waiting times and high thresholds to access children and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) mean many children only receive treatment when they hit breaking point. We want to see children being able to access early support and use services like mental health drop-in centres without needing an appointment to prevent their issues getting any worse.
“Our research has shown children’s wellbeing is in decline and a shockingly high number of young people resort to self-harm. Reasons include issues around school and appearance to social media, bullying and even sexuality and gender stereotypes.”
An Office for National Statistics study in 2015 found teens spending more than three hours a day on social media are twice as likely to suffer mental illness as those who limited their time on the likes of Facebook , Twitter and Instagram .
Child psychiatrist Dr Bernadka Dubicka said rising poverty and reduced prospects were also fuelling the crisis among children.
And she said young people were reporting increasing levels of “loneliness and hopelessness”.
She said: “What we frequently see on the frontline are the effects of abuse, trauma and social deprivation, as well as the effects of cuts in social care for vulnerable children and young people. Increasing access to support for mental health problems is crucial to prevent children and young people falling into crisis and reducing the need to attend A&E.”
Dr Dubicka, chair of the child and adolescent faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, urged the Government to urgently review “the current crisis in recruitment and retention of the mental health workforce”.
She said the number of child and adolescent psychiatrists fell five per cent in the past five years – while referrals in the past three soared by 44 per cent. New NHS data shows 23,686 mental health staff quit between June 2017 and May 2018. And one in 10 mental health posts were unfilled. Emma Thomas, chief executive of the charity YoungMinds, said: “It is alarming that there has been such a sharp rise in young people arriving in A&E needing mental health support.
“A main reason crisis services are overstretched is young people who are struggling don’t get help soon enough, which means problems can escalate.
“We often hear from young people who have gone to A&E because they don’t know where else to turn. But A&E can be a crowded and stressful environment and is usually not the best place to get appropriate help.”
The NHS Long Term Plan, published in January, revealed less than a third of affected children accessed treatment and support in 2017/18.
And shocking research from the Centre for Mental Health found it takes an average of 10 years from the first onset of mental health symptoms before young people get the right help.
Kadra Abdinasir, head of children and young people’s mental health at the centre, said: “It is crucial that the Government’s forthcoming prevention green paper and Spending Review prioritise children’s mental health.”
A recent study by the Children’s Commissioner for England found spending on “low level” children’s mental health services by both councils and NHS trusts, which cover early intervention, has fallen in more than a third of local areas.
It means less funding for vital drop-in centres, online counselling and school nurses.
Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield said: “Children suffering anxiety and depression aren’t asking for intensive in-patient therapeutic treatment, they just want to talk to a counsellor and be advised on how to stop problems turning into a crisis.” The NHS said: “The most authoritative data show a slight increase of mental disorder in 5-to-15-year-olds, from 9.7 per cent in 1999 to 11.2 per cent in 2017. So large reported inc-reases in NHS attendances are likely to be a combination of better awareness and better diagnostic recording.
“The NHS Long Term Plan is further ramping up early support in the community, schools and colleges, so that by 2023-24 an extra 345,000 every year will get the help they need.”