Mia was just 10 years old when she and her family knew she needed mental health support.
But their attempts to access help were met with delays and denials that lead to such a severe deterioration in her condition it nearly cost Mia her life.
“I wasn’t deemed sick enough, I was told it was fine and there was nothing wrong with me”, Mia explains. “I was telling them, ‘this is not normal’, and they didn’t listen.”
But Mia was struggling. Her mental health was worsening and would eventually reach crisis point.
“By the time I was 12 I was self-harming. I felt like some days I couldn’t cope with the day but I was still performing well academically and that, when you’re a kid in this country, that is how they mark your wellbeing.”
It was when Mia turned 15 that help eventually came but only after she suffered a breakdown. She was arrested for false imprisonment and criminal damage after an attack on her teacher, and eventually admitted to a psychiatric unit.
Mia believes earlier intervention would have prevented her deterioration into crisis.
“I would have killed myself. I would have. Mental health care is lifesaving, just as lifesaving as cardiac care, just as lifesaving as diabetes care. You cannot live a healthy, happy life if you are mentally unwell, without support.”
Mia’s story about her struggle to access the right mental health care at the right time exposes a system in crisis. Children and young adults across the country are being forced to endure long waits for specialist care and demand continues to grow.
NHS England estimates a quarter of all 17 to 19-year-olds now have a probable mental health disorder compared to one in 10 just six years ago.
David Barker and his team at Youth Talk offer free confidential counselling for 13 to 25-year-olds.
But they are overrun with record numbers of children and young people in need of help.
The charity has doubled its capacity – but even this is not enough.
Mr Barker told Sky News: “Before the pandemic there was a crisis of young people struggling with their mental health, the pandemic has compounded all of that, hugely, and as a result of that we’re seeing a long tail of the COVID pandemic in terms of mental health and particularly young people.”
Community health services are also struggling. A survey of NHS Providers found that children are now waiting an average of 91 weeks for an autism spectrum disorder assessment and between 72 and 207 weeks for an ADHD assessment.
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Jenna Hughes had to wait three years for a diagnosis for her eldest child Amelia.
Her youngest, Imogen, has already been waiting for a year. Caring for Amelia and Imogen without any extra help is having an impact on everyone in the family.
“I’ve struggled with my mental health,” Jenna says. “Because of the level of care my children need. That’s hard on my family. The NHS is overrun but it puts so much pressure on families, and strain and stress.”
Demand is only expected to increase.
And if there is no urgent action, healthcare providers like the Hertfordshire Community NHS Trust predict that by next year their community waiting lists for children and young people will have more than doubled since the pandemic.
Its chief executive Elliot Howard-Jones said the biggest challenge for his trust in responding to the growing crisis was finding the right staff.
“It’s absolutely not where we want to be, we want to have much shorter waiting times for children, it significantly affects their life chances and their educational attainment if we don’t see them quickly.
“The biggest challenge in terms of community services is not the vision for what we want to do which is clearly to support people at home and to help children develop as best as they can, it’s getting the staff and growing the service quickly enough to be able to respond.”
Mia is 21 now. She is in the final year of a wild animal biology degree at the Royal Veterinary College after passing her A levels with top grades.
But the outcome could have been very different and for the many thousands of children still struggling it will be unless the crisis in children’s mental health is addressed urgently.