Inadequate support of greater concern than trouble getting a GP appointment and desire for more joined-up services
The government has increased the NHS budget for mental health to £11.7bn. Photograph: Joe Fox Photo/Alamy
Mental health has become the area of NHS and social care the public most worry about and want improved, with delays in getting treatment and too little support for people in need their main concerns.
Inadequate support for people with mental illness has replaced the difficulty of getting a GP appointment as the public’s main frustration with the NHS, research by Healthwatch England shows.
Just more than half of the patient watchdog group’s local branches identified mental health services as a top priority that needed serious improvement, 77 out of the 152 branches – more than for any other area of care.
It was highlighted as a problem by more branches than those that mentioned difficulties getting to see a GP or NHS dentists (76); poor social care, including the quality of care homes and at-home support for older and disabled people (58); the need for more joined-up health and social care services (30); and the inadequacy of hospital discharge procedures (22).
Healthwatch branches act as local patient champions, investigating complaints about NHS care and advising people where to go to get the best care.
The findings were borne out by research that the organisation conducted with members of the public, which revealed a huge unmet need and that some people needing mental health care had very poor experiences of the NHS.
That included delays in accessing support, too little treatment and difficulties getting GPs to understand their condition and refer them for help:
- A man who sought counselling when he was widowed at the age of 30 said: “I had to wait nine weeks to get any sessions. And then it was restricted. It was certain days and the days I was allocated aren’t the days you feel like talking to somebody. I never had a mental illness, that was all stress, but I can imagine [that] if you asked somebody that is battling with depression or suicidal thoughts, that time is crucial.”
- Other patients criticised that their treatment was too brief. “You are allocated a certain amount of support and then you have used it up and that’s the end of it,” said one. “So if you actually feel you want more or you think you need more or even if your counsellor thinks you need more, it’s irrelevant and you are on your own. It should be an ongoing process.”
- Someone else related how a friend who had been abused as a child was told they could have a maximum of 12 counselling sessions to help them deal with that. “Well that’s just not enough and what he’s been given afterwards – ‘Well, we’ll give you some confidence-building courses’. It’s not enough. And he was told, ‘You’re lucky you’ve got 12 because most people get six.’ Things need to change in that area big time.”
- Another told how a friend who “was at a real dark place and went for help. It took us three GPs to get someone who referred him to the mental health [team].”
Katherine Rake, Healthwatch’s chief executive, said: “Still too often we hear from those accessing mental health support and their families that they feel the clock is ticking, and that if they are not ‘better’ by the end of their course of counselling they will be left to cope on their own.”
Quite a few of those experiencing mental ill-health want to be able to refer themselves directly to NHS mental health services, rather than having to wait for a GP to do that, she added.
Alastair Burt, the community and social care minister, said that the government had increased the NHS budget for mental health to £11.7bn – the largest ever. An extra £600m ministers have pledged to put into services during this parliament will significantly improve the number of people able to access talking therapies by 2020, Burt added.
Dr Geraldine Strathdee, NHS England’s national clinical director for mental health, said: “Mental health has until recently been the poor relation but this report shows it’s at the top of the public’s agenda. Stigma is finally decreasing and people are more willing to come forward to get effective treatment early for their children and themselves.”
The forthcoming report from the mental health taskforce that NHS England set up, due to be published next month, will bring in “real change in prevention, mental health promotion and improved access to services and crisis care”, she added.