Ambulance crews in England spend 1.8m hours a year on mental health callouts

Figures show that the number of 999 calls relating to mental health has risen by a quarter in three years

26th April 2023 about a 3 minute read
"With long waiting lists for mental health support, it comes as no surprise that increasing numbers of people are reaching out to 999 in crisis.” Rosena Allin-Khan, shadow minister for mental health

England’s 10 ambulance crews are spending 1.8m hours, or 75,000 days, each year on callouts to patients with mental health problems, new NHS figures show.

The figures, which were obtained by the Labour Party under the Freedom of Information Act, cover the time taken to reach the patient, care for them and then hand them over to A&E or specialist mental health staff.

Separate figures obtained by the Labour Party show an increase in 999 calls relating to mental health. They reveal that that the 10 regional ambulance services in England received 524,485 such calls in 2018-19. That figure rose by nearly a quarter to 652,720 in 2021-22.

Rosena Allin-Khan, the shadow minister for mental health described the numbers as “alarming” and said they were “indicative of public services being run down by successive Conservative governments.” She added: “With long waiting lists for mental health support, it comes as no surprise that increasing numbers of people are reaching out to 999 in crisis.”

The pressure on ambulance services means that people in a mental health crisis are enduring long waits for help. Separate research by the Liberal Democrats has revealed that the East of England and South West ambulance services are taking on average two hours and 20 minutes to respond to 999 calls involving a mental health emergency.

The North East ambulance service takes the third longest time of the 10 regional services to respond to a mental health emergency 999 call, two hours and four minutes.

Mental health emergencies take longer to resolve

Daisy Cooper, the Liberal Democrat health spokesperson, said it was “shocking” that people experiencing mental health crises were having to wait hours for an ambulance to arrive. “It shows that mental health patients are being catastrophically let down by this Conservative government, which is running our NHS into the ground. We know that time is often critical in a mental health crisis and every minute counts,” she said.

The figures are illustrative of wider pressures on the NHS. In February, the National Audit Office reported that 1.2 million people were waiting to receive treatment from NHS community mental health services.

A senior source in the ambulance service told the Guardian that mental health emergencies often take longer than ones involving physical health to resolve: “Mental health incidents do take a lot of time because they are often complex cases. Accessing crisis care can take a long time too and handover delays with mental health patients are possibly even longer than for patients with physical conditions.”

The source added that the increase in mental health calls to 999 in recent years was partly down to ambulance services becoming better at identifying such calls when they were triaged.

Many ambulance services have set up specialist teams to help them cope with the rise in mental health calls. The London ambulance service (LAS), for example, operates six “mental health joint response cars”, in which a paramedic and mental health professional respond to calls involving depression, suicide attempts, psychosis and other sorts of psychiatric crisis.

The staff assess the patient’s mental and physical health needs – only taking them to A&E if they need immediate treatment there – and arrange for them to receive appropriate help. So far the cars have helped 17,000 people in distress and taken just 16% of patients to A&E. This is far below the 50% who end up in A&E when attended by ordinary ambulance crews.

FCC Insight

These new figures show the extent of pressure that ambulance services are under from mental health call-outs. A 24% rise in 999 calls relating to mental health over just three years is placing huge demand on services, and people in crisis are being left unattended for two hours or more. There is clearly a growing need to invest in community mental health services so that people can be helped before they reach crisis point. Currently more than one million people are waiting for help from community services, and the longer they have to wait, the greater the risk that they will experience a mental health emergency.