A looming mental health crisis fuelled by the pandemic and economic recession means lengthy waiting times for treatment may get a lot worse, psychiatrists predicted yesterday.
It came after new research showed two fifths of psychiatric patients waiting for appointments end up in A&E or needing crisis services.
Patients with severe mental illnesses, including eating disorders and post-traumatic stress, can face months of delays before they see an NHS specialist.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists surveyed more than 500 patients to uncover the impact of waits between referral and an appointment.
Nearly two-thirds had to wait more than four weeks – while one in four waited more than three months.
Patients with severe mental illnesses, including eating disorders and post-traumatic stress, can face months of delays before they see an NHS specialist (stock image)
Others told how it was up to four years before they were treated for depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.
A total of 39 per cent said these long waiting times had led to a deterioration in mental health, with potentially devastating consequences.
Almost a fifth said they had caused problems at work, such as losing a job, and one third said it had led to relationship difficulties, including family breakdown.
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 college said that long waits for are largely down to a shortage of psychiatrists and other mental health specialists.
Patients who were surveyed by the body detailed how the delays had caused their health to deteriorate.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists surveyed more than 500 patients to uncover the impact of waits between referral and an appointment (stock image)
One 24-year-old women called Joanne, who 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.’
Another man called John said he attempted suicide after waiting four years to get support.
He said: ‘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.’
Waiting lists for mental health treatment have soared during the pandemic, and experts warned that lockdown will cause depression and anxiety to soar.
Analysis from the Centre for Mental Health found that 8.5 million adults and 1.5 million children in England are likely to need help to deal with the fallout from coronavirus, including losing loved ones and jobs.
Others – including NHS workers – could develop conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), more commonly associated with service personnel following armed conflicts.
Campaigners say that prompt treatment is necessary to prevent these mental health problems escalating to ‘crisis point’.