Four in 10 GPs are advising parents of children with mental health problems to pay for private care because NHS services are too overwhelmed to help.
A survey by the charity Stem4 found 43% of UK family doctors said they told parents whose children were struggling with anxiety, depression, self-harm or eating disorders to seek treatment privately if they could afford it.
Many GPs who took part in the research criticised NHS child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) for not being available to see children and young people they referred for care.
Some described CAMHS as “dire”, “extremely lacking”, “non-existent” and “totally, horrifically, grossly inadequate”.
Dr Nihara Krause, a consultant clinical psychologist and founder of Stem4, said parents want support for their children and young people as soon as possible and so will often stretch themselves financially to pay for treatment.
“Parents whose child has cancer or a serious physical health condition would never have to pay for private care, so why should it be OK for those whose children have mental health problems to be told to do that? This again shows that the much-vaunted ‘parity of esteem’ between physical and mental health services is still a far-off goal,” Krause added.
The survey also found that 54% of children and young people aged 11 to 18 are rejected for treatment by CAMHS, even though GPs only refer those in greatest need.
Those who are accepted face long waits for care of between three and six months (27%) and up to 12 months (28%).
Meanwhile, 73% of GPs think NHS children and young people’s mental health services have got worse over the last year.
An NHS England spokesperson told the Guardian: “Actually, record numbers of children and young people are being treated for mental health conditions, waiting times are improving significantly and the NHS is ahead of its target to treat 70,000 more children every year by 2021, as part of the NHS long-term plan.”