Mental health patients facing ‘unacceptably long’ waits for talking therapies

One in six people attempted to take their own lives while waiting for therapy, survey finds

Picture: Burger/Phanie/Rex Features
Picture: Burger/Phanie/Rex Features

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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 19.00.48

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.”

‘I’d been waiting 18 months. It felt like I had no support’

Alex, 36, has a diagnosis of depression, anxiety and personality disorder. He was initially prescribed medication before his psychiatrist suggested talking therapies. He waited 18 months to be assessed and a further 18 months for therapy to start. In the period he was waiting for care he ended up in hospital after attempting to take his own life.

“I had just become so ill and so frustrated. I had been told that the NHS waiting list was quite long but it felt like every time I saw somebody new, I was asking ‘is it possible to push on with the talking therapy’ and they’d say ‘yes, yes yes we’ll look into it’ but nothing concrete actually ever happened.

“Things got to the stage where I was getting worse but I didn’t have any community team contact or crisis team contact. All I had was a meeting with a psychiatrist every three months. It was quite bad, quite harrowing because it really felt like there was nothing there for me. I really felt like I didn’t have any support. Eventually my GP, who I had been seeing just to talk to someone, complained to the mental health service on my behalf,” he said.

Alex said starting the therapy has helped him but he’s concerned that ongoing support won’t be available.

“It has helped me to talk about some of the problems I’ve got. Before I was just burying everything inside. I didn’t feel comfortable talking to anyone about it. But even with the therapy I’ve been told I can only get about 10 sessions. I don’t think 10 sessions is going to sort out my problems. I think I need someone continuously but, on the NHS at least, I just don’t think that’s available just now.”

For confidential support call Samaritans on 08457 909090

More from Community Care

2 Responses to Mental health patients facing ‘unacceptably long’ waits for talking therapies

  1. James S September 16, 2014 at 11:13 am #

    That statistic is sickening.
    If you are suffering from depression and want help today, try the system.
    Written by a former sufferer of depression, it teaches a simple 7-step process to eliminate depression from your life.

  2. X September 25, 2014 at 5:13 pm #

    I can identify. I worked as a qualified social worker for 30 years, mostly in mental health.
    After a difficult year where I suffered a bereavement, broke my hip and got bullied out of the team I worked in I found my emotional reactions were extreme. I tried to deal with it using drugs and counselling but neither worked. I approached management and HR but they were not helpful. One day a colleague was extremely abusive to me and I responded by calling him a large child. I was suspended for five months in the area where I live and know people well. HR leaned on me to retire early which I did. I had major depression, was suicidal and had heart problems and it did not seem wise to continue. I insisted on seeing a psychiatrist and he diagnosed me with a serious mental illness but said that as I was not suicidal by this time and not self harming I did not qualify for treatment on the NHS. I spent well over £2,000 in private treatment. In my lifetime I have spent many more thousands of of pound and tried all kinds of drugs, randomly it seems, as I did not have a diagnosis and so did not know how to approach it. When I have had physical problems the NHS has been great but not so with mental health. I have seen this from both sides after working in mental health services. The services are overstretched and beaurocratic and there is stigma.People don’t talk to each other. It is time to change,.