Pandemic impact on mental health backlog catastrophic, says Royal College of Psychiatrists

Press release
19 September 2021
  • Record 1.5m people received NHS mental health support in June and an estimated 1.6m are waiting for treatment
  • Mental health should be prioritised in NHS Covid recovery plan with significant funding boost on top of existing commitments
  • £3bn of capital investment over three years also needed to address long-term challenges, such as the condition of mental health buildings 

The unprecedented impact of the pandemic will wipe out years of hard-won progress in mental health unless there is sustained investment, warns the Royal College of Psychiatrists. 

Demand has surged during the pandemic. Nearly 1.5 million people were in contact with mental health services in June 2021, the highest number since records began and 12.4% more than the same time last year.  

NHS England now estimates that a staggering 1.6 million people are waiting for treatment from mental health services, although the true figure is likely to be higher.  

New referrals for people of all ages are up 24%, at 392,703 in June 2021 compared to 316,974 in June 2020. 

The upcoming Spending Review is a critical moment for the future of mental health. The Royal College of Psychiatrists is calling for a significant funding boost on top of commitments in the Long Term Plan to tackle the immediate impact of the pandemic. £3 billion of capital investment over three years is also needed, on top of usual budgets, to improve the mental health estate and invest in digital technology and research.   

Ahead of his evidence session for the Health and Social Care Select Committee’s backlog inquiry, Dr Adrian James, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said:

 “We mustn’t overlook mental health when tackling the NHS backlog. The pandemic has been catastrophic for mental health and its devastating impact will be with us for years, but we shouldn’t let it wipe out years of progress. 
“We need the right resources and decisive action on the long-term challenges to help stretched services that are struggling to meet demand. This means building new mental health hospitals, transforming our outdated infrastructure and training more specialist doctors to provide high quality care. But this is about more than just the NHS, public health and the prevention of illness must be a top priority as well.” 

To tackle the mental health backlog, sustained investment in the workforce is needed, including substantial growth in medical school and core psychiatry training places. The Government should also commit to almost £400m extra spending annually by 2024/25 on drug and alcohol services in line with the Dame Carol Black review. 

National waiting lists in physical health, e.g. elective operations, tests and scans, have rightly received widespread attention. Despite being less visible due to fewer NHS standards, the impact in mental health has been just as dramatic and is forecast to continue for years. However, mental health was not mentioned in the recent announcement of £5.4 billion for NHS pandemic recovery and backlog clearing. 

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