England is facing a ‘second pandemic’ of anxiety and depression – and the NHS is struggling to cope

A massive surge in the number of people dealing with mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, psychosis and eating disorders has led to a dramatic increase in waiting times for treatment, NHS leaders have warned.

Millions of patients in England are facing dangerously long waits for mental health treatment and support, in what NHS leaders and doctors are calling a “second pandemic” fuelled by a surge in mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, psychosis and eating disorders.

According to the NHS Confederation – a membership body that represents healthcare professionals across the UK – there are currently 1.6 million people on the waiting list for specialised mental health treatment, with a further eight million who are unable to join the waiting list but would still benefit from support.

As such, the NHS Confederation is calling on the government to publish a comprehensive mental health recovery plan in order to deal with growing demand and ensure that children and young people – who are in particular need of support – do not suffer as a result. 

The call comes after the publication of the long-awaited NHS Elective Recovery Plan, which sets out how the backlog of people needing planned surgical procedures will be addressed.

“We are moving towards a new phase of needing to ‘live with’ coronavirus, but for a worrying number of people, the virus is leaving a growing legacy of poor mental health that services are not equipped to deal with adequately at present,” said Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation.

“With projections showing that 10 million people in England, including 1.5 million children and teenagers, will need new or additional support for their mental health over the next three to five years, it is no wonder that health leaders have dubbed this the second pandemic.

“A national crisis of this scale deserves targeted and sustained attention from the government in the same way we have seen with the elective care backlog.” 

“For a worrying number of people, the virus is leaving a growing legacy of poor mental health that services are not equipped to deal with adequately at present.”

While the government did announce an extra £44 billion worth of funding for the NHS during its autumn 2021 Budget, none of the funding was specifically identified for mental health – and the lack of action to address this growing issue has left health care leaders worried that patients will not receive the treatment they require.

Dr Adrian James, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “We urgently need a fully funded mental health recovery plan, backed by a long-term workforce plan, to ensure everyone with a mental illness can get the help they need when they need it.

“Millions of children, young people and adults are seeking help from mental health services that are over-stretched and under-resourced. The situation is critical. The government cannot afford to neglect mental health recovery any longer.” 

As part of their proposed mental health recovery plan, the NHS Confederation is calling for more support for mental health workers – many of whom “feel close to burnout” as a result of the pressures they’re under – as well as greater support for primary care services (like GPs) in order to address the growing number of people who are not ill enough for specialised care, but do need some assistance from community-based services.

The NHS Confederation’s proposal also suggests that more should be done to encourage people to come forward and seek support, in recognition of the healthcare inequalities highlighted by the recent report from the NHS Race and Health Observatory.  

“[The current situation] calls for a radically different approach to how we support and promote good mental health at both national and local levels, rather than simply leaving it to the NHS to respond to overwhelming levels of illness,” Taylor added.

“It is encouraging that the Secretary of State has confirmed there will be a renewed focus on mental health as part of the updated Long Term Plan but if we don’t respond now and look at new prevention strategies, a generation of people risk being let down by the institutions that should be there to protect and support them.”

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’ list of mental health helplines and organisations here.

If you are struggling with your mental health, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.

For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email [email protected] 

Images: Getty

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