NHS mental health referrals to surge by a third due to pandemic

·3-min read
Forecasts from The Strategy Unit suggest that the number of referrals for mental health help will rise by 33 per cent in the next three years - Adam Kuylenstierna/EyeEm
Forecasts from The Strategy Unit suggest that the number of referrals for mental health help will rise by 33 per cent in the next three years - Adam Kuylenstierna/EyeEm

Mental health referrals are forecast to rise by a third in the wake of the pandemic, resulting in an extra 1.8 million cases, the Royal College of Psychiatrists has warned.

The organisation is calling for £5 billion in recovery funding for mental health, warning that the NHS is already facing the biggest backlog of those waiting for such help in its history.

Forecasts from The Strategy Unit, which carries out NHS analysis, suggest that the number of referrals for mental health help will rise by 33 per cent in the next three years.

Currently, there are about 5.4 million referrals annually in England, a figure which is projected to rise to 7.2 million by 2023.

Dr Adrian James, the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “Tokenistic mentions of mental health make no difference to the lives of the millions of people, who are stripped of their dignity while having to wait for treatment. What they need, instead, is significant investment to build better mental health in the aftermath of the pandemic.”

Watch: Children's mental health: Zahawi outlines investment

‘Mental health should not be bottom of priorities’

Latest NHS figures show that 1.5 million are in contact with mental health services, a 12 per cent rise in a year. A further 1.6 million are estimated to be waiting for care with mental illnesses such as eating disorders, addictions, severe anxiety or depression.

The new modelling is based on an assessment of the direct and indirect impacts of the pandemic, including stress, loneliness, hospital admission for Covid and an inability to access mental health help.

The Royal College is calling for £4.9 billion recovery funding for mental health services in this spending review to tackle rising demand.

Dr James said: “Mental health shouldn’t be at the bottom of the list of government priorities in this spending review.”

The funding plea includes a call for £3 billion capital investment, to build new services and restore crumbling NHS buildings and eliminate mixed-sex wards, as well as calling for funds for six new mental health hospitals.

Experts are particularly worried about the impact of the pandemic and repeated lockdowns on the generation of children growing up in the shadow of Covid.

Covid impact on children’s mental health

NHS figures published last month suggest an explosion of eating disorders among children since the pandemic, with three in four teenage girls suffering from possible problems.

Overall, one in six children aged between six and 19 were found to be suffering from a probable mental disorder. The figure, which compares with one in nine in 2017, showed no improvement on last year, with experts warning that the damage suffered by children during repeated lockdowns appeared to be sustained.

Sarah, 22, from Norwich, who has lived with an eating disorder and self harmed throughout her teenage years, said: “Multiple long waits for mental health treatment have meant my recovery from an eating disorder, poor self-esteem and self-harming has taken far too long.  

“At my lowest, I was self-harming around 100 times a day. But it still took me five years to receive the treatment I needed to better manage my mental health and bring an end to the self-harming that has gripped me since my teenage years.

“I’m now as well as I ever have been thanks to the treatment I’ve received from psychiatrists and mental health staff, but I could have been on the road to recovery sooner if I hadn’t had to wait so long for care.” 

Watch: Sajid Javid 'leaning towards' compulsory Covid vaccines for NHS staff

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting