First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been accused of years of “hollow words” over the Scottish Government’s approach to tackling specialist mental health waiting times for young people.
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar grilled Ms Sturgeon at First Minister’s Questions after he said 44% of children on the waiting list were waiting over the 18-week target.
And some 1,300 children were waiting more than a year to begin treatment with the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS), he said.
Figures published earlier this week showed that 73.2% of youngsters were seen within 18 weeks of referral in the quarter ending March 2022 – an increase from 70.5% in the previous quarter – despite the Scottish Government’s 90% target.
But Mr Sarwar said thousands of children were falling through the cracks and being forced to “pick up the pieces on their own”.
He told the First Minister of a 14-year-old boy whose CAMHS treatment for ADHD had ended in June 2021 – but when his condition began deteriorating months later, he was placed back on the waiting list, despite experiencing suicidal thoughts.
He said: “After waiting months already, why does a 14-year-old, who has been referred, who has been seen, and who is now reporting suicidal thoughts, have to start from the beginning again?”
Ms Sturgeon said the wait was unacceptable but mental health services had been significantly impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
She said the latest figures show signs of “improvement”, and added: “These are tough challenges, nobody says otherwise.
“We cannot magic away, as much as we would all love to, the impact of the pandemic but we are supporting health services to recover from the pandemic and see to more patients more quickly and that work will continue with the focus it needs and deserves.”
But Mr Sarwar said the figures show a “systemic problem” that has occurred before the pandemic.
He urged the Scottish Government to reform CAMHS referral and triage systems, provide GPs with a mental health professional and give all pupils – in both primary and secondary – access to face-to-face counselling.
The Scottish Government has outlined plans previously to give all secondary school pupils access to an early intervention counsellor.
Mr Sarwar said: “These are solutions but all the First Minister has done again is offer, year after year, warm words.”
He added: “Why does Nicola Sturgeon think it is acceptable to use the same hollow words year after year for eight years while nothing changes, families are left to suffer, and kids are left to pick up the pieces on their own?”
In response Ms Sturgeon said: “That is not the case. What we see with mental health treatment is more people coming forward for treatment. More people are being seen for treatment but we are building services.
“Anas Sarwar has put forward what he describes as solutions. He has not said anything today that is not already being done and happening.
“For example, we are right now recruiting 800 additional mental health workers for A&E departments, GP practices, police station custody suites, prisons.
“We’re funding 1,000 additional staff to be in community mental health to build resilience there to ensure that every GP practice does have access to a mental health service.
“We are recruiting 320 additional staff in CAMHS. We already see CAMHS staff at a record high.
“All of this is being done. More people are coming forward but we are seeing more people treated.”