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Child mental ill-health

One in eight children or young people in England are affected by mental ill health.

If a child is affected by mental ill-health it means they have some form of emotional, behavioural, hyperactive or other mental health difficulty.

Examples of mental health conditions include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Or a child struggling with depression.

What does the law say about supporting children affected by mental ill-health?

The law about supporting children affected by mental ill-health can be complex and confusing. This is because:

  • It is not found neatly in one place
  • Different laws, regulations and guidance may apply depending on which agency or organisation is involved
  • Different laws and regulations may apply depending on the nature and extent of mental ill-health difficulty a child has.

Information information about some of the legal duties that children’s services have towards children in different situations who are affected by mental ill-health, are explained later on this page.

Any parent or carer looking for legal information and advice about child mental ill-health should seek that from a specialist organisation. See the Mental Health section on our Useful links page for details.

What does CAMHS mean? What do they do?

Services for children affected by mental ill-health in England are known as CAMHS. This stands for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. In some areas they may be known as CYPMHS instead – Child and Young People’s Mental Health Service.

CAMHS (or CYPMHS) is made up of different agencies, organisations and services. This includes schools, children’s services, and health services. Together they aim to provide different kinds of help that children in their local area may need.

How to access CAMHS may vary from areas to area.  But often a referral is needed. This is often via the young person’s GP. Sometimes the referral can be made by another practitioner such a social worker or teacher.  Many CAMHS services have their own websites with information about how to access their service.

Local CAMHS services can be found using the search tool on the NHS website.

What duties do children’s services have to children affected by mental ill-health?

Children’s services departments have a range of duties to children who are in need in their local area. And to children and young people who are in the care system or have left it. This includes duties to support children being healthy.

Click on the drop downs below to read more about duties to children affected by mental ill-health

General duty to children in need

There is a general legal duty on children’s services to keep children in need in their local area safe and to promote their welfare (see section 17 of the Children Act 1989). A child in need is a child who is thought to need extra help from children’s services if they are to achieve or maintain ‘a reasonable standard of health or development’. All disabled children are classed as children in need. Some children in need will be those who are affected by mental ill-health. Children’s services should carry out a child in need assessment to work out whether a child is in need. And to decide whether the child is in need enough to get services in that local area.

See our Child in need page for more information and advice about child in need assessment and support.

Children with disabilities or special educational needs

Children’s services departments have duties to help and support children with disabilities and children with special educational needs. Some children with mental health problems also have special educational needs or disabilities.  In some cases, a child’s mental health condition will mean that they are classed as a disabled child. See our Children with disabilities and and children with special educational needs page for information.

Children looked after in the care system

Where a child is looked after in the care system, they must have a care plan.  Children’s services have a duty to record information about a child’s health in their care plan. Health includes mental health.  The care plan should explain what the child’s health needs are and how these will be met (see Schedule 1, paragraph 5 of the Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010).

Young people getting ready to leave the care system

When a young person is getting ready to leave the care system a pathway plan should be prepared. This is a personal plan to help them as they move to adulthood. It explains what children’s services (and others) will do to help and support them. Their health care needs, including any physical, emotional or mental health needs must be addressed. This includes explaining how those needs will be met once they are no longer looked after in the care system (see Schedule 8, paragraph 9 of the Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010). For more information about support for care leavers see the Leaving the care system section of our Advice sheets page.

Children subject of Family Court proceedings

When the Family Court makes decisions about a child, they must look at the child’s welfare.  Considering the physical, emotional and educational needs of the child is part of doing that. This includes the child’s mental health (section 1 (3) (b) of the Children Act 1989).

Our What? pages explain more about many of these duties.  See our Child in need page, our Children in care under a court orders page, and our Children in the care system under voluntary arrangements (section 20) page in particular.

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