People with mental health issues are becoming more unwell while they face ‘unacceptably long’ waits for talking therapies, with some self-harming or attempting to take their own lives, campaigners have warned.
A survey of over 2,000 people who had tried to access talking therapies found that almost one in 10 had waited over a year between referral and assessment while 41% had waited over three months. More than two-thirds of those surveyed said they had become more unwell while waiting for care. Four in ten had harmed themselves and one in six (16%) had attempted to take their own lives.
The research was carried out by the We Need to Talk Coalition, a partnership of 18 organisations including the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Royal College of General Practitioners and a host of mental health and homeless charities. The coalition said a full range of evidence-based talking therapies should be available within 28 days of referral.
In response, the government said it had invested £400m in therapies via the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme but acknowledged it was “unacceptable” that some people were waiting over a year for treatment.
Paul Farmer, chief executive of mental health charity Mind and the chair of the coalition, said that the findings were more evidence that mental health services aren’t coping with current levels of demand.
“We know that in some parts of the country investment in IAPT and other models has transformed lives as people have been able to access the help they need when they need it. But far too many are facing unacceptably long waits or are struggling to even get a referral. This simply isn’t good enough,” he said.
“At the same time as people are waiting for psychological therapies, prescriptions for antidepressants rise and rise and we have seen mental health services struggle to cope with the demands for beds and other crisis services.”
IAPT data published by the Health and Social Care Information Centre showed that most people (62%) were seen within 28 days of referral but one in 10 faced waits of ‘more than 90 days’. The data does not record how many days past 90 each patient had to wait.
The We Need to Talk Coalition said that the official figures exposed a huge variability in access to services. Data for March shows that some areas saw most people within 28 days of referral but, in others, two-thirds of patients had faced waits of over 90 days.
Faye Wilson, chair of the British Association of Social workers’ mental health forum, said IAPT had helped people with “mild and moderate” needs get help that wasn’t available in the past but it had become clear that there were “extensive delays” in people accessing services.
“People can be waiting months and months, meanwhile their health is deteriorating and their relatives and carers are in distress. And this isn’t just IAPT services. Another issue is general access to psychosocial interventions and specialist talking therapies for people with higher levels of need that are in touch with mental health social workers and community teams,” she said.
“Again there are massive waiting times for that. People and their families can be left in turmoil. It’s not acceptable because we know these services can be effective and make a difference. This is more evidence that we have pressurised services right across the system. It’s not just crisis services that are struggling.”
Wilson said that social workers in integrated mental health teams were “ideally placed” to deliver psychosocial interventions, including some talking therapies, but to do so they needed the training and appropriate workloads to let them do therapeutic work alongside care management.
Norman Lamb, the care and support minister, said: “It is unacceptable for anyone with mental health problems to have to wait over a year for treatment.
“More people than ever before are getting talking therapies thanks to our £400m investment. Nationally, 62 per cent people referred for talking therapies are treated within 28 days but we know there is more to do, which is why we’re introducing access and waiting time standards for mental health from next year.”
For confidential support call Samaritans on 08457 909090