Two-fifths of patients waiting for mental health treatment contact emergency or crisis services, with one-in-nine (11%) ending up in A&E, research by the Royal College of Psychiatrists has found.
A Savanta ComRes poll of 513 British adults diagnosed with a mental illness also reveals the damaging consequences that hidden waiting lists - the wait between referral and second appointments – have on the lives of patients living with severe or common mental illness.
Of those on a hidden waiting list, nearly two thirds (64%) wait more than four weeks between their initial assessment and second appointment. One in four (23%) wait more than three months and one-in-nine (11%) wait longer than six months.
Respondents living with severe mental illness - including eating disorders, bipolar disorder and PTSD - were left waiting up to two years for treatment. Others were left waiting up to four years for treatment for depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.
Two-fifths (38%) reported that they, or someone on their behalf, had contacted emergency or crisis services while waiting for their second appointment, while 39% said that waiting led to a decline in their mental health.
Dr Kate Lovett, Dean of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said:
“It simply isn’t good enough that so many people are waiting for mental health treatment and ending up in crisis. Even before the pandemic hit, mental health services were not keeping up with demand. But the looming mental health crisis fuelled by the pandemic and the economic recession means waiting times could get a lot worse.
“As well as needing medical students and doctors to choose psychiatry we need decisive government action on workforce, infrastructure and funding.”
The vast majority (89%) of those whose mental health deteriorated say it affected their life, including relationship problems (33%), financial troubles (30%) and problems at work, including job losses (18%).
John, who lost his job and waited four years for treatment after trying to take his own life, said:
“I felt that life wasn’t worth living anymore and tried to take my own life. It took four years for me to get the regular support I needed to overcome my illness, but in that time I became a shadow of my former self.
“My self-harming increased, I stopped going out, would go weeks without showering and lost so much weight as I couldn’t face going shopping. Having got the right treatment my life is now back on track, although I can’t help but look back on those four years as wasted ones.”
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 College is today launching Choose Psychiatry, a campaign aiming to encourage more medical students and doctors to specialise in psychiatry.
19-year-old Evangeline, who had to get private treatment after waiting months on the NHS, said:
“My mental health spiralled out of control after my dad’s suicide. I saw a mental health specialist at CAMHS but didn’t hear anything from them for months despite my anxiety and depression getting much worse.
“Things got so bad that my family had no option but to book me in for private treatment. I’m feeling much better now, but my illness could have been sorted much sooner if I hadn’t been left in limbo waiting for my CAMHS appointment.”
People in contact with mental health services have death rates 5 times higher for liver disease, 3.3 times higher for cardiovascular disease and 2 times higher for cancer. People living with a serious mental illness die on average 15-20 years earlier than the general population.
Joanne* aged 24, from Manchester, suffered from PTSD and waited for two years to get the right help, said:
“I was extremely unwell and had suicidal thoughts waiting for specialist help made this worse. When I got a referral I was hopeful that I'd get the treatment that I desperately needed, then I realised it was just an assessment and I kept waiting, it felt as if no one wanted to help. I ended up being detained under the mental health act in a psychiatric unit.
“Looking back, I feel that was avoidable; if I had the help when I first needed it, I don't think things would have escalated to a point where my life was at risk. I just need someone to listen to me."
* - not her real name
Latest data from NHS Digital shows that in the last five years (June 2015 - June 2020), the number of consultant psychiatrists has increased by just 4.3% - up from 4,220 to 4,416 - while the number of consultants across the rest of the NHS increased by 20.6%, up from 39,461 to 45,858.
The number of trainees in psychiatry in Great Britain rose by a quarter (24.0%) from 337 in August 2017 to 418 this August, according to Health Education England figures.
Listen to Mike's story
Find out more information about our Choose Psychiatry campaign.
Savanta ComRes interviewed 513 British adults aged 18+ with a formerly diagnosed mental health condition online between 16th and 21st September 2020. Data were weighted to be broadly representative of adults aged 18+ with a diagnosed condition by age, gender and region. Full data tables can be found at https://comresglobal.com/our-work/poll-archive/.