The fall in the number being treated is the result of difficulty in accessing hospital treatment, rather than fewer people becoming ill
"We know that wards often don’t have enough space to admit people presenting with mental health needs who need life-saving treatment, pushing the threshold for inpatient treatment dangerously high." Lucy Schonegevel, associate director of policy and practice, Rethink Mental Illness
The number of patients to receive hospital treatment for mood disorders in England has decreased by a third in five years.
The latest data from NHS Digital data shows that, in 2017-18, more than 23,000 people sought NHS hospital treatment for mood disorders in 2017-18. By 2021-22, this had dropped to 15,532.
The fall was particularly high among black patients, with the number of hospital admissions halving, from 1,209 in 2017-18 to 610 in 2021-22.
The data refers to finished admission episodes where mood disorder was a primary diagnosis. NHS terminology uses “mood disorder” to describe a variety of mental health problems, including bipolar disorder and depression.
Charities told the Guardian that the reason for the drop was that people were increasingly having difficulty in accessing hospital treatment. Lucy Schonegevel, associate director of policy and practice at Rethink Mental Illness, said the number of people being admitted to hospital for mood disorders should not be accepted as a “face value” sign that fewer people are becoming unwell: “Instead, it is a potential warning that people may be struggling to access the treatment they need. There are several explanations why hospital admissions may have fallen, including some positives, but it does speak more to the complex web of care and support people have to navigate – and a system creaking under strain – rather than a drop in demand.”
On the positive side, she said, one explanation for the decrease might be the improved investment in community mental health services, which could be leading to a reduction in hospital admissions. However, she added: “We also know that wards often don’t have enough space to admit people presenting with mental health needs who need life-saving treatment, pushing the threshold for inpatient treatment dangerously high.
“This lack of capacity is often due to delayed discharge, when people deemed well enough to leave hospital and restart their lives can’t be discharged due to a lack of social care or supported accommodation.
“The answer to this complex equation is not simply to increase the number of beds, but to look at the broader offer of support which helps people to stay well and escape the revolving door of inpatient care.”
Dr Adrian James, the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said the drop was “deeply troubling”, adding: “Research into why this decline occurred is needed so that we can better understand how to reverse it and provide targeted support to the groups who are worst affected.
“People who seek help can often find that services are understaffed and under-resourced, which may discourage them from looking for more support in the future.”
The Department of Health and Social Care said it was investing at least £2.3bn additional funding to “expand and transform mental health services in England so that two million more people will be able to get the mental health support they need.”
This is another story that demonstrates the increasing pressure on mental health services. It is a problem with many interlocking parts – high demand, a shortage of mental health professionals and a lack of social care provision. Because of the continuing delay in discharging healthy patients, there simply aren’t enough beds to enable seriously ill people to be admitted – but this can only be addressed by recruiting more social care staff.
We also have to find a way to help people before they reach the stage of needing mental health help from the NHS. This week, FCC has launched two tools we hope will help ease the burden on mental health services. The first is a guide to digital mental health tools that will help people discover what digital support is available for their specific needs. The second is the first-ever commissioning tool to help medical professionals and commissioners better understand what digital mental health tools are available for the patients in their care. Both, we hope, will make a real difference to the experience of people seeking mental health support.