Long waits for mental health treatment lead to life changing problems, RCPsych study finds

A quarter of people (24 percent) with a diagnosed mental health condition reported waiting more than three months to see an NHS mental health specialist, a poll for the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPsych) has found. Some (6 percent) say they waited more than a year to see an NHS mental health specialist – one man interviewed following the poll said he waited 13 years to get the help he needed. Where respondents’ mental health got worse, these waits led to relationship problems including divorce (36 percent), financial troubles (32 percent) and work problems including job loss (34 percent).

The ComRes poll of 500 British adults diagnosed with a mental illness found that over half (55 percent) waited more than four weeks from referral to see an NHS mental health specialist, one in four more than three months and 6 percent more than a year. Following the poll, RCPsych interviewed 25 respondents and found one man waited 13 years to get the help he needed.

For some, the long waits caused a deterioration in their mental health which in turn led to relationship problems including divorce (36 percent), financial troubles including getting into debt (32 percent) and work problems such as job loss (34 percent). One respondent, a 26-year-old woman from Scotland, said: “I wouldn’t leave the house, I lost my job, I self-harmed. I had no help.”

Long waits for NHS mental health treatment are largely down to an insufficient mental health workforce, particularly when it comes to psychiatrists, who are doctors specialising in mental health. The Royal College of Psychiatrists is today launching the next phase of its Choose Psychiatry campaign, aiming to encourage more medical students to choose to specialise in psychiatry.

In the last five years (between June 2013 and June 2018), the number of consultant psychiatrists has increased by just 3.3 percent, while the number of consultants across the rest of the NHS increased by 21 percent. During the same period, the number of child and adolescent psychiatrists fell by 5.8 percent.

Professor Wendy Burn, president of the RCPsych, said: “It is a scandal that patients are waiting so long for treatment. If they were waiting many months or even years for cancer treatment there would be an outcry, but for some reason when it comes to mental illness long waits have been deemed acceptable. Fortunately, the tide is turning with a 2 percent rise in the number of psychiatrists in the NHS in England in the past year and the number of trainees in psychiatry in Great Britain up by a quarter between August 2017 and August this year.

“But as our research shows, the failure to give people with mental illnesses – from depression and anxiety to bipolar disorder and PTSD – the prompt help they need is ruining their lives: preventing them from doing their jobs effectively, maintaining key relationships like their marriage and keeping their heads above water financially. One of the NHS’s mantras is ‘right care, in the right place, at the right time’[2] and until this becomes a reality, stories like the ones our poll revealed will continue being all too familiar.”

Last year the Government announced a pilot scheme to ensure it takes no longer than four weeks for a mentally ill child in England to be seen by an NHS specialist following referral by their GP or other services.

“Our research shows that much ground needs to be covered if a similar waiting time cap were to be achieved for adults,” Prof Burn said.