Psychiatric services for young people in need require drastic overhaul

Opinion: A certain percentage will always be at risk of serious mental health problems

Sat, Feb 22, 2014, 00:01

Between January and September 2013, three teenagers aged 14 were admitted to adult mental health units. So were two teenagers aged 15, 27 teenagers aged 16, and 36 aged 17. So 68 children were admitted in all, according to the last child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) report.

Adult psychiatric units have improved greatly in recent years, but they are no place for a child.

Imagine the impact on a 14-year-old of being confined in a psychiatric unit with very unwell adults. At the very least, she or he would be uneasy, and at worst, afraid and traumatised.

Suitable facility
The decision to admit a child to an adult unit is never taken lightly, and the stays tend to be short, eight days on average. However, the only reason that the decision is ever taken is because no more suitable facility is available.

Things are improving. In 2008, there were three 12-year-olds who spent time in adult units, and the total number of admissions of children under 18 was 263.

However, 68 children in adult units is still absolutely unacceptable. But what about a 19-year-old, or 20-year-old in a bed in a ward next to a man aged 75? Until recently, the cut-off point for treatment as an adolescent was often 16, but even 18 is still very arbitrary. It should be a priority to move to services that cater for 15- to 25-year-olds, as is the case elsewhere, for example, in Australia.

Last October, research published by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland highlighted that young Irish people appear to have higher rates of mental health difficulties than their peers in the UK and US.

It is important to maintain perspective. Most young people enjoy good mental health, and there are helpful treatments and therapies for those who do not.

However, the Psychiatric Epidemiology Research across the Lifespan (PERL) Group Report found that one in five young Irish adults aged 19-24 and one in 6 young people aged 11-13 were experiencing a mental disorder at the time they took part in the research.

The PERL report shows that young people who experience mental ill-health during adolescence have higher rates of mental disorders and substance misuse during their young adult years, and are three times more likely to be unemployed.

It is imperative that we prioritise identifying and helping young people at risk. However, CAMHS have been underfunded and under-resourced for a very long time. The patently false idea that mental health problems are primarily a concern for older people still lingers.

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