Long waits for mental health treatment lead to divorce, job loss and money problems, RCPsych finds

14 November 2018
  • 1 in 4 people (24%) 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%) 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%), financial troubles (32%) and work problems including job loss (34%).

PATIENTS are waiting up to 13 years to see an NHS mental health specialist, research by the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPsych) has found.

A ComRes poll of 500 British adults diagnosed with a mental illness found that over half (55%) waited more than four weeks from referral to see an NHS mental health specialist, one in four more than three months and 6% 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%), financial troubles including getting into debt (32%) and work problems such as job loss (34%).

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.”

Choose Psychiatry

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%, while the number of consultants across the rest of the NHS increased by 21%. During the same period, the number of child and adolescent psychiatrists fell by 5.8%.

RCPsych comments

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% 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’ 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.

"13 years later I finally got the help I needed"

Respondents to the poll, whose illnesses ranged from depression to bipolar disorder, included:

  • Lee Rogers, 37, from north Wales. Interviewed following the poll, Lee said he should have got the help he needed when he first attended hospital in 2005 suffering from panic attacks.

But he was not seen by a mental health specialist and it took another 13 years for him to be properly assessed and begin getting the treatment he needed, which he is now undergoing.

Lee said: “No-one in A&E recognised that I was struggling with my mental health so I was sent home with no support. I got so ill I ended up losing my job and tried to kill myself several times. 13 years later I finally got the help I needed. I wouldn’t have lost all those years of my life had my mental ill health been identified at the outset.”

  • A 39-year-old woman from the East of England said of her experience of waiting for treatment: “My husband and I nearly separated. I was impossible to live with and constantly felt suicidal.”
  • Another 39-year-old woman, from Yorkshire and Humberside, said in her anonymous response to the poll: “I became out of control financially, lost everything and ended up in rehabilitation four times.”
  • A 38-year-old woman from Wales said of the impact of her wait to see an NHS mental health specialist: “I got depression and it got so bad that I lost my job and I divorced over it. As a result, I got a caution too and financial problems.”

Choose Psychiatry campaign

RCPsych’s Choose Psychiatry campaign was first launched in September last year to show that the specialty is unique in requiring doctors to understand a patient’s brain, body and background.

This autumn’s campaign will also focus on medical students.

The number of trainees in psychiatry in Great Britain rose by a quarter (24.6%) from 337 in August 2017 to 420 this August, according to Health Education England figures.


Notes to editors

About the Poll

The Royal College of Psychiatrists commissioned market research consultancy ComRes to conduct a poll asking people with diagnosed mental health conditions how long they had to wait for specialist mental health treatment after a referral*, and what the impact of that wait was on their lives.

*To access NHS specialist mental health services, all patients have to be referred for treatment, usually by a GP. However, there are various alternative referral routes including via other medical consultants in a hospital setting, through social services, via a health service within a prison, through liaison diversion schemes, or by an A&E doctor.

ComRes interviewed 501 British adults aged 18+ with a diagnosed mental health problem* between 17th-22nd August 2018. Data were weighted to be demographically representative of all British adults aged 18+ with a mental health problem by age, gender, region and social grade. These demographic specifications were taken from a previous RCPsych/ComRes poll of 2,000 GB adults aged 18+, conducted online between 10-12th August 2018.

*Must say that they have experienced a mental health problem and it was formally diagnosed by a GP or other mental health professional to qualify.

Respondents to the poll also provided an anonymous narrative of their experiences of mental illness and how it impacted on their lives. They also said what they had been diagnosed with. Their illnesses ranged from depression and anxiety to PTSD, bipolar disorder, postnatal depression, eating disorders, personality disorders and alcoholism.

Following the poll, the Royal College of Psychiatrists conducted interviews with 25 respondents. Information from one of these interviews – Lee, 37, from North Wales – is included in this press release.

As part of the Five Year Forward View for Mental Health in England, significant improvements have been made in mental health care, particularly in the areas of Early Intervention in Psychosis (EIP), Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) and eating disorders treatment:

  • In the last two years, at least 69% of patients received treatment within two weeks of referral to EIP services every month (well in excess of the 50% target set out in the Five Year Forward view for Mental Health in 2017/18 and 53% in 2018/19).
  • The Mental Health Five Year Forward View Dashboard from NHS England confirmed that IAPT recovery rates reached a new peak of 51.7% in the final quarter of 2017/18.
  • 74.7% of patients with urgent eating disorders cases started treatment within one week in the first quarter of 2018/19 compared to 64.9% in the same period two years earlier and 81.2% of patients with routine eating disorder cases commenced treatment within four weeks, compared to 65.1% two years earlier.

About Choose Psychiatry

Find out more about the campaign.

About the Royal College of Psychiatrists

  1. We are the professional medical body responsible for supporting over 18,000 psychiatrists in the UK and internationally.
  2. We set standards and promote excellence in psychiatry and mental healthcare.
  3. We lead, represent and support psychiatrists nationally and internationally to governments and other agencies.
  4. We aim to improve the outcomes of people with mental illness and the mental health of individuals, their families and communities. We do this by working with patients, carers and other organisations interested in delivering high-quality mental health services.

For more information, or to speak to an expert or case study, please contact:

Hannah Perlin
Senior Communications Officer
Royal College of Psychiatrists

hannah.perlin@rcpsych.ac.uk| 0203 701 2738

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