Spike in number of referrals to children's mental health services leaves hundreds on waiting lists
A "significant rise" in the number of children referred for specialist mental assessments has led to almost 350 young patients being placed on waiting lists.
Figures seen by The Irish News also reveal Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHs) in the Belfast trust have the second highest referral rate in UK - and the overall highest acceptance rate in the entire NHS.
There are 347 patients on waiting lists for 'Step 3' CAMHs in the trust, which involves assessment and treatment of mental health illnesses - with some facing delays of more than seven months despite a nine week target.
The development comes 13 years after a landmark independent review into a north Belfast teenager's suicide recommended an overhaul of children's services.
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While trust officials say that the main recommendations of the investigation into the circumstances around Danny McCartan's death have been implemented, they accepted there are issues around short staffing which are impacting on waiting lists.
A Freedom of Information (FoI) response confirms there has been a spike in the number of referrals to children's mental health services.
"The reason for these breaches in this area is the significant rise in the referrals over the past two years (at) 30 per cent each year," the response stated.
A trust spokesman added: "The trust are working with the Health and Social Care Board to enhance staffing in community CAMHs, however like with many services there is a lack of available staffing so this will take time," a trust spokesman said.
A "prevalence" study into mental health illnesses in young people across the north is also underway, which will be published this year.
It aims to "provide a greater understanding of the mental health needs of our children and the higher level of referrals in Northern Ireland compared with similar services in the UK and Ireland".
"The findings will inform further strategic plans and service requirements," the spokesman said.
But SDLP councillor Paul McCusker, who is a high profile campaigner around suicide prevention and is assistant chair of the PIPs charity, said delays for access to specialist services were "alarming" - especially coming more than a decade after the McCartan review.
"When children and teenagers don't receive intervention their behaviour becomes very difficult to manage in the community and they are put at great risk, with some going on to commit crime or use drugs and alcohol," he said.
"These are the ages when we need to provide more intense therapies, especially for young people with more complex mental health problems. However, these are the patients who are waiting longer to see specialist health professionals.
"The crisis intervention isn't there. So the young person goes to their GP and they're put on a waiting list for CAMHs. This is such an important stage as the young person feels there is no hope and many don't want to live. We need to find out the reasons behind these feelings.
"We get calls all the time from worried parents and carers whose kids are waiting to be seen, saying 'what will I do'. It is unacceptable that the community and voluntary sector have to step in."
Mr McCusker obtained the latest figures on children's waiting lists through a Freedom of Information (FoI) request to the Belfast trust.
The FoI response notes: "Belfast CAMHs have the second highest rate in the UK per 100k population. It has the highest acceptance rate per 100k population in the UK."
Lifeline is a Northern Ireland crisis response helpline service for people experiencing distress or despair. People living in Northern Ireland can call Lifeline on 0808 808 8000. Deaf and hard-of-hearing textphone users can call Lifeline on 18001 0808 808 8000.
The charity Pips delivers suicide prevention and bereavement support services, counselling and therapies throughout Northern Ireland. It can be reached on 028 9080 5850 or 0800 088 6042.
Samaritans provides a listening service if you need to talk about what you're going through. The number is 116 123.