One in four people with mental health problems has to wait at least three months to start NHS treatment, and some do not get help for four years, new research reveals.
The delays are leading to patients ending up in A&E, seeing their mental health decline and experiencing problems with their work, finances or relationship.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists warned that the big increase in mental health problems caused by the Covid-19 pandemic could result in even longer waits for care.
“It’s disgraceful that people are waiting years for potentially lifesaving mental health treatment. There would be a public outcry if people were waiting so long for cancer treatment, but for some reason waits for mental health treatment are deemed acceptable,” said Dr Kate Lovett, the college’s dean.
The findings are based on a survey, undertaken by Savanta ComRes for the college, of 513 British adults who have been diagnosed with a mental illness such as anxiety or bipolar disorder.
It found that 23% of those who had to wait after their initial assessment for treatment to start at the next consultation did not begin treatment for three months or more.
Several people with eating disorders, bipolar disorder and PTSD waited up to two years while a handful with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts faced delays of up to four years.
They included a man who told the college how he could not access help for four years after losing his job and trying to take his own life. “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,” he said.
In addition one in 10 sought help in A&E, while in 38% of cases either the person themselves or someone close to them got in touch with an emergency or crisis mental health team.
“It simply isn’t good enough that so many people are waiting for mental health treatment and ending up in crisis,” added Lovett.
“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.” The college wants more young doctors to become psychiatrists to help boost the workforce and reduce delays in care.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “We recognise the impact this pandemic can have on people’s mental health and NHS mental health services have adapted to continue to provide support to those who need it throughout the pandemic.
“We are committed to increasing the mental health workforce. Mental health services will expand further and faster thanks to a minimum £2.3bn of extra investment a year by 2023/24 as part of the NHS Long Term Plan.”