Call for government action as mental health referrals reach record high

The number of people in need of specialist mental health care has risen by around half a million compared to before the pandemic.

15 March 2022

The number of referrals for specialist mental health care has reached a record high in England, new analysis suggests.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists said that the country is coming to terms with the “biggest hit to its mental health in generations” as it called for action from the Government.

It said that there were 4.3 million referrals to specialist mental health services in England during 2021.

This includes more than a million (1,024,877) referrals for children between January and December last year.

In 2019 the total number of referrals was 3.7 million.

While the number of referrals does not equate to the number of people in need of care – some people will have multiple referrals for different services – it shows growing demand for services.

The College said that without a fully funded plan for mental health services then thousands of people will be “left waiting far too long for the treatment they need”.

Analysis of NHS Digital data by the Royal College of Psychiatrists also found in December one million people were receiving specialist treatment for conditions including addiction, anxiety, depression, eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The College said that the NHS delivered 1.8 million mental health consultations in December.

Some 424,963 children were in contact with mental health services in December 2021 compared with 367,403 in December 2019.

And even though the NHS is working to see all those referred to specialist services, there are still 1.4 million people waiting for treatment, it said.

Dr Adrian James, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “As the pressure on services continues to ratchet up, the silence from government continues to be of grave concern for the College, the wider mental health workforce and, most importantly, our patients.

“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.

“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.

“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.”

The College said that the most recent data on children and young people’s eating disorders found record numbers are waiting for routine care and only 59% of those waiting for urgent care are seen within one week.

A spokesperson for the Department and Social Care said: “We are committed to ensuring everyone is able to access the help and advice they need, which is why we are investing an additional £2.3 billion a year into mental health services by 2023/24, on top of the £500 million we have made available to address the impact of the pandemic.

“We will be launching a national conversation to inform the development of a new long term Mental Health Plan later this year.

“Mental health services are there for those who need them, so if you need support or are concerned about someone else, please reach out for help.”

The figures were released as the mental health charity Mind called for reform to the Mental Health Act.

It said that more than three years have passed since the Independent Review of the Mental Health Act, which made a series of recommendations to overhaul the Act which allows people with mental health problems to be sectioned – or held against their will – in certain circumstances.

The charity said that more than one in 10 calls to its legal helpline in 2021 were about the Mental Health Act.

Rheian Davies, head of legal at Mind, said: “A recent worrying rise in detentions further confirms the urgent need for fully funded reform of the Mental Health Act, to make sure anyone who is experiencing a mental health crisis and is a risk to themselves is treated in a safe and therapeutic environment.

“Structural racism continues to pervade the Mental Health Act – black and black British people are still far more likely to be detained under the Act, restrained against their will and be more likely to be re-admitted to hospital without getting the right support.

“To see racial equity within mental health services there must be a heightened commitment to antiracism, which addresses systemic biases in how people are treated and challenges institutional racism head on.”

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