More than 1500 children had been waiting a year or more for specialist help with mental health problems by the end of 2020 – with the total having increased by almost 165% in 12 months.
New figures showed that at the end of December a total of 1560 youngsters had been waiting 52 weeks or more for an appointment with Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services.
That is up from 589 at the end of December 2019 – a rise of 164.8%.
By the end of 2020, 11,166 children and young people were waiting to be seen by CAMHS – with campaigners at the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition (SCSC) complaining that the number waiting more than a year was the worst on record.
Public Health Scotland’s latest waiting times report explained that the rise in the number of youngsters experiencing long waits was “potentially due to a combination of school closures, some CYP (children and young people) not having access to a safe/confidential space to engage in digital appointments, or have a desire to wait for an in-person appointment”.
But the SCSC, an alliance of organisations working with vulnerable youngsters, branded the latest figures as “deeply troubling”, adding that they “point to a highly challenging environment for both our young people and our mental health services”.
The Scottish Liberal Democrats said the waiting times were “scandalous”.
The party’s leader Willie Rennie said: “There were already a record number of children waiting over a year for treatment at the outset of the pandemic, years into the SNP government’s mental health strategy. Now they number nearly 2000, with record numbers of adults waiting over a year too.
“A year feels like a lifetime if you are waiting for help. Problems that can start small become crises. Frontline staff are working tirelessly but there aren’t enough of them.
“In the past month Scottish Liberal Democrats have led the parliament in declaring a mental health crisis, against the wishes of the government, and secured £120m more for mental health in the course of our budget negotiations with ministers.
“This should be the platform for a new government that puts recovery first and transforms mental health services. It is time to finally end the scandalous waits of over a year. “
While the Scottish Government has recently upped investment in mental health services, a SCSC spokesman insisted that “significantly greater funding is needed to address the current crisis facing our children and young people”.
The spokesman said that with CAMHS referrals now beginning to return the the level they were at before the coronavirus lockdown, it was “vital that children and families are provided with the support they so desperately need, especially given the impact of the pandemic on mental health”.
He stated: “The fact that more than 1500 of our most vulnerable children have been waiting more than a year for treatment in this respect is deeply disturbing.
“Our mental health services must receive the funding they vitally need or we face having a lost generation of vulnerable children and young people.”
While the Scottish Government has set the target of having at least 90% of CAMHS patients seen within 18 weeks, the figures showed that this was achieved for less than three quarters (73.1%) of those who had their first appointments between October and December 2020.
Meanwhile, more than a fifth had waited nine months or more for their appointment – with 12.6% of patients having waited between 36 and 52 weeks, and 8.1% having waited 53 weeks or more to be seen.
Mental health minister Clare Haughey said there had been a “significant increase” in performance in the most recent quarter, describing this as “encouraging”.
But she added: “We want to go further as long waits are unacceptable.”
Ms Haughey said a number of actions had been set out to “progress improvement on access to CAMHS and psychological therapies, backed by significant investment”.
She continued: “The £120m we have announced for our Mental Health Recovery and Renewal Fund is the single largest investment in mental health in the history of devolution.
“It will prioritise our ongoing work to improve specialist CAMHS services, address long waiting times, and clear waiting list backlogs.
“The direct investment from the Scottish Government of over £262m for mental health in the coming financial year means that we have more than doubled our mental health budget for 2021-22 when compared with 2020. That takes total Scottish spending on mental health in 2021-22 to in excess of £1.2bn.”
Ms Haughey also stated: “We recognise that not all children and young people need specialist services like CAMHS, which is why we announced funding of £15m to be distributed to local authorities to support the mental wellbeing of five to 24-year-olds in their communities.
“We will also continue to prioritise support for children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing in education, through our £60m investment to ensure secondary schools have access to a counselling service.”