Millions waiting for care as COVID-19 lays bare the challenges facing mental health services

30 August 2021

Hard won progress on mental health treatment and services is in jeopardy if the NHS does not get the critical investment it needs in the upcoming spending review. Around 1.6 million people are officially waiting for care with private estimates from the sector suggesting around 8 million more are not meeting the threshold to access the services they need to help them, even though they would benefit from treatment.

Trusts are under extraordinary pressure despite welcome national investment and sustained efforts by frontline staff to improve care and reduce waiting times, as set out in the five year forward view for mental health. Services – including those for eating disorders and support for children and young people – were overstretched before the pandemic. COVID-19 has given rise to new need and exacerbated existing challenges, meaning that demand is significantly outstripping supply.

On the frontline, rising demand and longer waits translates into bed occupancy above safe levels, inappropriate out of area placements with people – including young people – treated many miles from home and more people presenting for treatment later, in crisis or with more serious conditions. This is not a good experience for patients or staff, and adds costs and further pressures on mental health services.

The sector needs critical capital investment to tackle the most immediate challenges facing the mental health estate.

Saffron Cordery    Deputy Chief Executive

The sector needs critical capital investment to tackle the most immediate challenges facing the mental health estate. Significantly more funding will be needed to recruit enough staff with the right skills, expand community services to avoid inpatient admissions where possible, increase bed numbers to bring care closer to home and to tackle the ever growing backlog of care caused by the pandemic.

The deputy chief executive of NHS Providers Saffron Cordery said:

"We need to be honest about the scale of the challenge confronting mental health services now and in the future, as the full extent of mental health and COVID-19 demand becomes known.

"The upcoming spending review must make good on commitments to date which, despite years of underinvestment and the enduring care deficit, had started to improve services and experiences for mental health patients.

"Critically the settlement for mental health must also recognise that mental health trusts are treating more patients than ever before and that COVID-19 has added a significant challenge into the mix in terms of increasing the numbers seeking help and the complexity of the help needed. This challenge will be with us for many years to come.

If we are serious about putting mental and physical health services on the same footing, we must recognise that nearly 10 million people are waiting for some kind of care or treatment for a mental health condition.

Saffron Cordery    Deputy Chief Executive

"If we are serious about putting mental and physical health services on the same footing, we must recognise that nearly 10 million people are waiting for some kind of care or treatment for a mental health condition.

"We must also recognise that very many mental health buildings are not fit for purpose, require significant repair or redevelopment. Treating patients in safe, therapeutic environments is fundamental to a safe and modern mental health service.

"During COVID-19 mental health trusts have gone the extra mile – setting up mental health hubs to support the NHS workforce and making a major contribution to delivering the vaccination programme.

"Failing to support mental health services now risks storing up significant problems for the future, at great cost to individuals, their families, wider society and the economy. We cannot and must not let that happen."

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