The RCPsych is calling on the Government to publish a mental health recovery plan to cope with the unprecedented demand for specialist mental health care

COVID mental health

In 2021, mental health services received a record 4.3 million referrals, the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPsych) has said, warning that people’s mental health will only get worse unless concerns are heeded and acted upon.

An analysis of new data from NHS Digital conducted by the RCPsych found that adult mental health services in England received 3.3 million referrals between January and December 2021, over a million (1.025 million) of which were for people aged less than 18 years. 

Commenting on the data, Dr Adrian James, President of the RCPsych, said: ‘Staff are working flat-out to give their patients the support they need, but the lack of resources and lack of staff mean it’s becoming an impossible situation to manage.’

The incidence of depression doubled during the pandemic

According to Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures, the number of people experiencing some form of depression almost doubled during the pandemic. The ONS reported how, in summer 2021, one in six (17%) adults experienced some form of depression, far in excess of pre-pandemic levels of depression of one in ten (10%) adults. The ONS stated: ‘Younger adults and women were more likely to experience some form of depression, with around one in three (32%) women aged 16–29 years experiencing moderate to severe depressive symptoms, compared with 20% of men of the same age.’

In addition, NHS England and NHS Improvement reported that the number of children and young people aged 5–16 years with a probable mental health disorder had risen from 11% in 2017 to 17% in 2021.

The RCPsych is calling on the Government to urgently publish a mental health recovery plan to reduce waiting times, highlighting that 1.4 million people are waiting for treatment. It says that the plan must include funding to expand services, train more psychiatrists, and replace crumbling mental health facilities across the country. 

Dr James said: ‘The warning of the long tail of mental ill health caused by the pandemic has not been heeded. Many thousands of people will be left waiting far too long for the treatment they need unless the Government wakes up to the crisis that is engulfing the country.’

Unprecedented demand for specialist mental health care

A recent survey run by Surgo Ventures suggested that the number of people needing mental healthcare may be greater than thought. The survey found that many people were reluctant to seek help, with one in five saying that they wouldn’t seek professional care for at least 6 months, if ever.

The RCPsych explained: ‘When the Omicron variant of COVID-19 arrived in December, a record 1 million people were receiving specialist treatment for conditions including addiction, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder’, adding that the NHS was ‘working hard’ to respond to the unprecedented demand for specialist mental health care, delivering 1.8 million consultations in December alone. Specifically, they said that, compared with December 2019, there was an increase of those in contact with mental health services in December 2021 of:

  • 15.7% for children and young people aged 0–18 years (424,963 versus 367,403)
  • 4.9% for adults aged 19–65 years (642,303 versus 612,222).

NHS England and NHS Improvement acknowledged that ‘workforce is the single biggest risk and opportunity for the Mental Health Programme’, commenting at the end of 2021 that there had been an increase of more than 18,000 mental health staff since 2016, and that the NHS long term plan will see an additional £2.3 billion going to mental health services by 2023/24.

Dr James emphasised: ‘We don’t need warm words or empty commitments. We need a fully funded plan for mental health services, backed by a long-term workforce plan, as the country comes to terms with the biggest hit to its mental health in generations.’

This article originally appeared on Medscape, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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