New report calls for urgent action to protect children’s rights in mental health settings

The number of children with a significant mental health problem, such as depression, anxiety or an eating disorder, has increased dramatically over the past three years, and for many this has worsened as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Each year over 3,500 children go to hospital because they do not receive the care they need in the community, or cannot be kept safe in other settings.  But, as our new report, ‘A safe space? The rights of children in mental health inpatient care’, highlights, mental health hospitals can cause further harm and lack effective safeguards to protect children. 

This report shares the views and experiences of children, as told to their advocates – professionals whose sole role is to ensure children are heard and their rights upheld. It is launched today, 20 November, to mark international Children’s Rights Day – the anniversary of the United Nations adopting the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which provides over 40 substantive rights, including for children in especially vulnerable circumstances. The UK ratified this international treaty in 1991.

Among the report’s findings are that children are being kept in hospital for too long, often many miles from home, and in environments not conducive to their needs and rights as children. Staggering numbers are still being placed on adult wards and are subject to harmful restraint, seclusion and segregation. A child’s right to have help from an advocate when they make a complaint about their care or treatment appears to be frequently ignored.

Over two thirds of children are in hospital as ‘informal patients’ and should be free to go when they wish. But many are kept locked up, or do not understand their rights and fear being ‘sectioned’ if they try to leave. These children are denied the legal safeguards provided to children who are formally detained under the Mental Health Act 1983 – such as the right to an independent mental health advocate.

Author of the report, Kamena Dorling, said:

“These findings follow a number of reports this year, including from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Children’s Commissioner for England and the Care Quality Commission, which all highlight that children in mental health hospitals, including those with autism and/or learning disabilities, are at risk of very serious rights violations. Despite successive strong commitments from the government in recent years, the quality of care and treatment for children and young people who have mental ill health remains inadequate and is often scandalous.

It is time for the government to take real action to ensure that children receive the best possible care and support, close to home and always in settings designed with and for children. The government must commence the legislation passed in 2018 on use of restraint and must implement the recommendations of the Independent Mental Health Act review, also issued in 2018, as a matter of urgency, particularly around ensuring all children can access high quality independent advocacy.”

Read the report and Article 39’s statistics briefing on children in mental health hospitals here.