Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has called for a “revolution” in mental health services to reduce excessive assessment and treatment waiting times.
It was revealed in a recent survey of mental health trusts conducted by the Liberal Democrats that some patients are waiting for more than three years to be assessed for psychotherapy services. According to the figures the average for the longest treatment waiting lists is over seven months, and there proved to be wide variations between different trusts.
Clegg said that funding had been diverted away from mental health services and into acute hospitals to help them meet their obligations on a strict 18-week waiting time government target.
Speaking at the Guardian Public Services Summit on 8 February, Clegg announced a series of policies to tackle the government’s “shameful neglect” of mental health services. He said: “The most vulnerable people are waiting scandalously long for access to treatment when all the evidence shows that early intervention is vital. I am calling for nothing less than a revolution in how we treat mental illness. Within four years I want our health service to guarantee that no-one will wait longer than 13 weeks for their first treatment.”
Other policy initiatives include using direct payments and individual budgets for people with mental health problems, and giving patients the option of seeking treatment from the private sector.
Mental health charities have welcomed Clegg’s policy commitments. SANE chief executive Marjorie Wallace said: “It is time that people with mental health problems had the same equality of access to treatment as people with physical health conditions.”
Paul Farmer, Mind chief executive, criticised the lack of information on waiting times. He said: “Data on waiting times for mental health services isn’t routinely collected or published. Without proper monitoring and targets, it’s far too easy for mental health services to be sidelined. We need a guarantee that there will be prompt access to mental health care for everyone who needs it, regardless of where they live.”
Steve Shrubb, director of the NHS Confederation’s Mental Health Network which represents the majority of mental health trusts, said: “It is really pleasing to see the leader of the Liberal Democrats build on his earlier vision statement by highlighting the importance of effective mental health services not only for those who suffer from mental illness and their families but also for the nation as a whole. We also agree that the key to providing these effective services is to make sure that help is provided as early as possible so that potentially more expensive treatment is avoided further down the line.”