Long wait times for mental health treatment lead to patients’ mental health worsening, leading to relationship breakup and job loss
“We cannot sit idly by and watch the most vulnerable people in our society end up in crisis. Not only do spiralling mental health waiting times wreak havoc on patients’ lives, but they also leave NHS services with the impossible task of tackling rising demand.” Dr Kate Lovett, presidential lead for recruitment, Royal College of Psychiatrists
Almost a quarter of adults with mental health problems have to wait more than 12 weeks to start treatment, and many are so desperate they turn to A&E or dial 999, according to research from the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
The college’s research found that 43% of adults with mental illness say the long waits for treatment have led to their mental health getting worse. Many face a “hidden wait time” for starting treatment, it said, but there are no publicly available data on how long people wait from their initial referral to actually starting treatment.
Mental health patients are increasingly having to turn to A&E for help, experts have warned, as new research suggests nearly one in four are being forced to wait more than 12 weeks to start treatment.
The patients taking part in the survey had a range of mental illnesses, including eating disorders, addiction, bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression.
Respondents whose mental health deteriorated said it had led to financial problems such as debt, struggles with work resulting in job loss and relationship difficulties, including divorce and family breakdown. The college said that some were so desperate for help they rang 999 or presented at A&E.
The college is calling for a year-on-year increase of medical school places from 7,000 to 15,000 by 2028/29 and a fully funded workforce strategy to tackle staff shortages.
Dr Kate Lovett, the college’s presidential lead for recruitment, said: “We cannot sit idly by and watch the most vulnerable people in our society end up in crisis. Not only do spiralling mental health waiting times wreak havoc on patients’ lives, but they also leave NHS services with the impossible task of tackling rising demand.”
One 45-year-old women from south London said she had waited seven months to be referred to a community team, and so had turned to A&E: “The only other way to get help was to present to A&E, which was a traumatic experience – having to be reassessed and readmitted again and again. Turning up to A&E was the only way I could be seen regularly. No one should have to go through that.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Mental wellbeing is a priority for the government and we will invest an additional £2.3bn a year into mental health services by 2024 – giving 2 million more people the help they need.”
Today is World Mental Health Day. It’s a good time to reflect on the increasing incidence of mental ill-health, what causes it and how to address it. It is clear that, as demand for mental health services soars, it is hard for the NHS to keep up – and patients end up struggling alone, often experiencing debt, relationship break-up and job loss. It is clear that efforts need to be made to stop this downward spiral: we urgently need the government to press ahead with its workforce plan, but we also need to look at more imaginative early interventions such as peer support, workplace counselling and therapeutic apps. Without better intervention, we risk increasing pressure on A&E services as well as having to cope with the social consequences of long-term mental ill-health.
We have been focusing on mental health as a priority and in recent months and there is a growing body of evidence demonstrating the scale of the problem. We’ve not seen detailed approaches to addressing the problem. This area has been neglected for successive parliamentary cycles and it is increasingly clear that people are paying the very real price.