UK psychiatry chief urges funds to tackle mental health backlog

Photograph: Thianchai Sitthikongsak/Getty Images

The “catastrophic” impact of the pandemic on mental health could wipe out years of progress unless there is a significant injection of cash, the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists has said.

Psychiatrists have seen demand for care surge this summer, with referrals for people of all ages up 24% to 392,703 in June compared with 316,974 in June last year, new analysis of data reveals.

About 1.5 million people received NHS mental health support in June and many more are in desperate need of treatment, said Dr Adrian James, Britain’s most senior psychiatrist. The figures for June, the month for which statistics are most recently available, are the highest since records began.

Extra cash is now urgently needed to help a further 1.6 million people who are waiting for mental health treatment as more continue to come forward seeking help after a year of lockdowns, James said.

Last week Sajid Javid, the health secretary, told a thinktank event in Blackpool that the UK would have to deal with a “social backlog in mental health and public health” as well as ballooning NHS waiting lists after the pandemic.

Javid conceded that too many people had experienced loneliness and isolation during the pandemic, while numbers waiting for routine mental health treatment had soared.

The government has promised an extra £2.3bn a year to transform mental health services by 2023. But the college is calling for additional funds on top of existing government commitments to tackle other issues such as the poor condition of mental health buildings.

Speaking before giving evidence to the health and social care committee’s backlog inquiry on Tuesday, James said: “We mustn’t overlook mental health when tackling the NHS backlog.

“The pandemic has been catastrophic for mental health and its devastating impact will be with us for years, but we shouldn’t let it wipe out years of progress. We need the right resources and decisive action on the long-term challenges to help stretched services that are struggling to meet demand.

“This means building new mental health hospitals, transforming our outdated infrastructure and training more specialist doctors to provide high-quality care.”

One problem is the need to increase the number of psychiatry training places, James said, while the government should commit to increasing medical school places in England to 15,000 by 2028-29.

The college is also calling on ministers to commit to almost £400m extra spending annually by 2024-25 on drug and alcohol services, in line with the Dame Carol Black review published this year.

It comes as a separate report warns that a generation of children face years of trauma and mental health problems brought about by Covid-19, with children from poorer backgrounds at greater risk.

A study of hundreds of support workers carried out by the charity Buttle UK suggested the problems facing children and young people include family mental illness, domestic violence and neglect. This is adding to the stress caused by the pandemic and it is feared the burden will limit those children’s horizons as they begin to think about the future.

The survey of 700 workers who care for 36,000 children in the UK found that 48% had encountered evidence of neglect among their charges, and 44% reported health problems or illness in a child’s parent or carer.

“These children have had to deal with the same disruption to their schooling, the isolation from friends and wider family and the broader anxieties of living through a global pandemic as all children have,” the charity said.

“However, critically, added to this have been the significant added challenges in their ability to overcome trauma brought on by a range of adverse childhood experiences. These issues – along with lack of digital access – are seen by support workers as the main drivers to children falling further behind in their education compared to their more affluent peers.”

Buttle’s research indicated that 63% of support workers had come across family mental illness, with nearly half saying the pandemic had made it “a lot more severe”. Nearly 60% reported domestic violence, with nearly four in 10 saying Covid had exacerbated it.

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Joseph Howes, the chief executive of Buttle UK, said: “It’s clear that the pandemic has exacerbated some of the very challenging experiences that many children on low incomes were already facing and with it the level of trauma they are dealing with. The circumstances of the last 18 months are not allowing them to deal with this as they might have done.

“This crisis in mental health problems is one of the key drivers in children from disadvantaged backgrounds falling further behind in their education. If we are to close the growing gap with their more affluent peers then we must listen to these frontline professionals and prioritise mental health support, otherwise initiatives like the national tutoring programme are not going to benefit those that need it most.”

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