The most comprehensive set of data ever collated on hospital and community mental health services has revealed stark variations in the levels of care being offered to different sections of the population.

The Information Centre's mental health minimum dataset appears to back up figures from previous surveys showing younger mental health patients and those from black and minority ethnic groups face significant disadvantages.

It shows that women aged 36-64 are around a third more likely to benefit from the care programme approach - in which they receive planned, co-ordinated treatment - than teenage boys. This has been interpreted as revealing that government pledges to improve early intervention are failing to impact sufficiently.

Paul Jenkins, chief executive of the mental health charity Rethink, said: "There are still concerns about how many people [early intervention] is reaching and whether the criteria are excluding people until they're quite ill." He said early intervention capacity needed to be increased, and that informal support could be provided through teachers and youth workers.

Normal behaviour

Information Centre programme manager for mental health and community care Netta Hollings said: "Part of the problem is deciding what's just normal teenage behaviour and what's the beginning of a mental health problem."

The data revealed a "long-standing gap in picking up problems early" and also reflected the stigma affecting boys' willingness to push for extra help, she said.

The figures, which have been published as "experimental statistics" until all the provider-level information has been verified, may show a different picture when they are updated to include 2007-08 data. They confirm the findings of the Healthcare Commission's Count Me In census, which has consistently suggested that BME groups are over-represented among sectioned patients.

While around a quarter of all psychiatric inpatients spent time formally detained in hospital during 2005-06, this rose to more than 40 per cent of those from mixed and black ethnic backgrounds. Ms Hollings said the figures would help organisations examine their race equality targets.

Women outnumbered men as users of outpatient and community mental health services by more than 100,000, a pattern that was particularly noticeable in over-65s. "It's more socially acceptable for women to access services," Ms Hollings said.

Many specialist mental health services are provided by independent and voluntary sector organisations, which do not have to provide data to the Information Centre.