Delays in NHS mental health treatment ‘ruining lives’

Silhouette  of a person sitting in a corridor

People with mental health problems are waiting so long for NHS care they are ending up jobless, divorced or in financial distress because of the delay, according to a report.

A Royal College of Psychiatrists survey of the experience of 500 diagnosed mental health patients found that some had waited up to 13 years to get the treatment they needed.

“It is a scandal that patients are waiting so long for treatment”, said Prof Wendy Burn, the college’s president. “The failure to give people with mental illnesses the prompt help they need is ruining their lives.”

The survey, undertaken by Comres, also found that more than a third (37%) of those who faced a wait to access specialist help saw their mental health deteriorate during that time.

“My husband and I nearly separated. I was impossible to live with and constantly felt suicidal,” a 39-year-old woman from the east of England said.

Another respondent, a 38-year-old woman from Wales, said: “I got depression and it got so bad that I lost my job and I divorced over it. As a result, I got a caution and financial problems.”

Among the one in three whose mental health worsened, 36% said they experienced relationship difficulties as a result, 34% had had problems at work, including losing their job, and 32% had suffered financially.

A quarter of the 500 patients, who were drawn from across the UK, waited more than three months to see an NHS mental health specialist. Six per cent had waited at least a year.

The NHS in England is trying to shorten waiting times and increase access to mental health care for children and adults. The Care Quality Commission found last year that some under-18s in England were waiting for 18 months to get help.

Ministers have pondered the idea of introducing waiting-time targets, akin to those in physical health guaranteeing A&E care, cancer treatment and planned operations within set times, as part of the NHS’s forthcoming 10-year plan. The health service has already introduced maximum waiting times for first episodes of psychosis.

However, ministers and NHS bosses are aware their ambitions are constrained by serious understaffing in mental health services, especially shortages of specialist nurses. A government pledge to ensure children are seen within four weeks is due to start in only a quarter of England by 2023 for that reason.

“Long waits for mental health support can be both costly and distressing for people. From childhood to later life, it is vital that mental health support is on hand when people need it”, said Sarah Hughes, the chief executive of the Centre for Mental Health.

“The longer people wait, the more problems are likely to escalate to crisis point and the greater impact the mental health difficulty has on our health, education, work and relationships. The human cost is immeasurable, but we know it has an enduring impact.”

Charlie, a 20-year-old woman in Glasgow who did not want to be identified, struggled with autism, borderline personality disorder and complex PTSD for eight years before she started treatment. Despite first seeking help aged seven, she did not get support until she was 15, during which time she began self-harming and having suicidal thoughts. At one point her anxiety became so intense that she was taken out of school.

“I was suicidal but no one would help me. I kept asking for help, and kept being pushed away. Either I wasn’t ill enough to meet the threshold for services, or the waiting list was simply too long”, she said.

A spokesperson for NHS England said: “It would be appropriate to highlight that, after decades of underinvestment, the NHS is ramping up mental health services, including expanding talking therapies and improving treatment times while the NHS’s long-term plan will set out further priorities for the years ahead.”

It is also boosting other key areas of mental health care, such as A&E liaison psychiatry services and support for mothers with conditions related to giving birth such as postnatal depression and postpartum psychosis, in its drive to improve provision.

Case study: ‘I wasn’t offered help for my suicidal thoughts’

Lee Rogers , who is 37 and lives in north Wales, says he had to wait 13 years after having his first panic attack in 2005 before he finally began receiving treatment in August.

“I was working as a recycling officer with my local council in Wales when I had my first panic attack in 2005. One day I just felt all funny – panicky – and had to go home. It felt horrible, terrifying. I couldn’t breathe and thought I was going to die. I’d had nothing like that before.

When I saw my GP he gave me antidepressants and betablockers but they didn’t work. He didn’t refer me to NHS mental health services. My employers sent me for some private counselling but it was only six sessions. By the time the NHS offered me counselling I was so traumatised by therapy that I felt I couldn’t do any more. I was signed off work for six months and ended up losing my job altogether.

My mother, Julie, died in 2010. After that I began drinking a lot, felt suicidal and tried to kill myself. I wasn’t having any treatment at the time. They just discharged me. The nurse asked me if I was OK and I said ‘yes’ because I didn’t want to stay in. She gave me a phone number to ring, for an NHS mental health service, if I felt anxious or suicidal.

I saw a mental health nurse several times in early 2015 but that didn’t help me. I then tried to kill myself again that year and ended up being admitted to hospital. They still didn’t offer me any help for my anxiety and suicidal thoughts. I just thought: ‘What a hopeless hospital’. I thought I should be helped and supported.

This year, I began having major panic attacks and more suicidal thoughts. Nothing seemed to work treatment-wise. I began seeing a mental health nurse, though it took six weeks for that to start, which I thought was too long, given how much worse I had become. I’m also on different medication now.

I’ve been ill for 13 years and in all that time have only been treated twice, until the sessions with the nurse began recently. The lack of treatment I’ve had isn’t good enough. It’s disgusting, really. The NHS should do more to reduce the risk of people killing themselves, but instead they just give tablets and fob them off.

Thirteen years after my first panic attack I finally got the help I needed. It’s not acceptable to wait so long for treatment. I wouldn’t have lost all those years of my life had my mental ill health been identified at the outset and if they had listened to me more.”

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