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Pressure on mental health services after 4.3 million referrals in 2021

There were 4.3 million referrals to mental health services in 2021, as the COVID pandemic continued to impact on people’s emotional wellbeing, analysis by The Royal College of Psychiatrists has found.

According to the research by RCPsych, there were 3.3 million referrals to adult services and 1.025 million referrals of children and young people in England between January and December 2021.

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,” he added.

By the time the Omicron variant of Covid-19 arrived in December, a record one million people were receiving specialist treatment for conditions such as addiction, anxiety, depression, eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In December alone, the NHS delivered 1.8 million consultations, working hard to respond to the unprecedented demand for specialist mental health care. In December 2021:

  • There were 424,963 children and young people (aged 0 to 18 years) in contact with mental health services compared with 367,403 in December 2019  - a 15.7% increase.
  • There were 642,303 adults (aged 19 to 64 years) in contact with mental health services compared with 612,222 in December 2019 representing a 4.9% increase.
  • Across mental health, learning disability and autism services 1,834,137 appointments were attended compared with 1,599,584 in December 2019 – a 14.7% increase.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists’ analysis of NHS Digital Data is the latest dataset to show the pressure mental health services are under. The most recent figures 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.

Hundreds of adults are also being sent far from home for treatment because of a lack of beds in their area, a practice that would be completely unacceptable in physical health services and must urgently be addressed in mental health.

With 1.4 million people currently waiting for treatment, the Royal College of Psychiatrists is calling on the government to urgently publish a mental health recovery plan to reduce waiting times. The plan must include funding to expand services, train more psychiatrists and replace crumbling mental health facilities across the country.

Dr Adrian James 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.

“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,” he concluded.

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