Record 4.3 million referrals to specialist mental health services in 2021

Press release
15 March 2022

Mental health services received a record 4.3 million referrals during 2021 as the pandemic continued to take a toll on people’s mental health, according to research by the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Analysis of new NHS Digital data shows there were 3.3 million referrals to adult services and 1.025 million referrals of under-18s in England between January and December 2021.

When the Omicron variant of Covid-19 arrived in December, a record one million people were receiving specialist treatment for conditions including addiction, anxiety, depression, eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The NHS is working hard to respond to the unprecedented demand for specialist mental health care delivering 1.8 million consultations in December alone:

  • 424,963 children and young people (0 to 18 years) were in contact with mental health services in December 2021 compared with 367,403 in December 2019 (15.7% increase)

  • 642,303 adults (19 to 64 years) were in contact with mental health services in December 2021 compared with 612,222 in December 2019 (4.9% increase)

  • 1,834,137 appointments attended across mental health, learning disability and autism services compared with 1,599,584 in December 2019 (14.7% increase).

Dr Adrian James, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said:

“As the pressure on services continues to ratchet up, the silence from government continues to be of grave concern for the College, the wider mental health workforce and, most importantly, our patients.

“The warning of the long tail of mental ill health caused by the pandemic has not been heeded. Many thousands of people will be left waiting far too long for the treatment they need unless the government wakes-up to the crisis that is engulfing the country.

“Staff are working flat-out to give their patients the support they need but the lack of resources and lack of staff mean it’s becoming an impossible situation to manage.

“We don’t need warm words or empty commitments. We need a fully funded plan for mental health services, backed by a long-term workforce plan, as the country comes to terms with the biggest hit to its mental health in generations.”

With 1.4 million people waiting for treatment the Royal College of Psychiatrists is calling on the Government to urgently publish a mental health recovery plan to reduce waiting times. The plan must include funding to expand services, train more psychiatrists and replace crumbling mental health facilities across the country.

The analysis is the latest dataset to show the pressure mental health services are under. The most recent data on children and young people’s eating disorders found record numbers are waiting for routine care and only 59% of those waiting for urgent care are seen within one week.

Hundreds of adults are also being sent far from home for treatment because of a lack of beds in their area, a practice that would be completely unacceptable in physical health services and must urgently be addressed in mental health.

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