• Referral rates and waiting times vary hugely according to CCG data
  • One in ten wait over a year just to be assessed
  • One in six people attempt suicide while waiting for psychological treatment
  • Those paying to go private shoots up from one in ten to one in four in a year
  • Next government must make it a priority, says coalition

Mental health services are unable to cope with demand for psychological therapies, according to an investigation by the We Need to Talk coalition. The coalition of mental health charities, professional organisations, Royal Colleges and service providers says that huge variations in referral rates and waiting times around the country are unacceptable and are making people more unwell. It is calling on the next government to make access to talking therapies an immediate priority after the election.

The investigation brings together three separate sets of data from Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), therapists and services users that paint a picture of services struggling to cope. An analysis by the coalition of the latest Health and Social Care Information Centre data from CCGs shows enormous variation in both referrals and waiting times across England. In the last quarter of 2013/14, several CCGs report fewer than 100 new referrals for talking treatments, such as CBT, counselling and group therapy, while others report up to 5,400 in the same period.

While some CCGs, such as NHS Oxfordshire, say the majority of people are assessed for treatment within 28 days of referral, others report that more than 90% have to wait longer. The We Need to Talk coalition surveyed over 2,000 people who have tried to access therapy in the last two years. It reveals that one in ten (9.6%) are waiting over a year between referral and assessment, while four in ten (41%) wait more than three months. Once assessed, most people start therapy within three months, yet a third (32%) wait longer.

While waiting, two thirds (67%) feel they have become more mentally unwell. Four in ten (40%) have harmed themselves, two thirds (67%) have experienced suicidal thoughts and one in six (16%) attempted suicide. The survey also revealed the toll on other services; six% of people waiting for therapy have been voluntarily admitted to hospital, 3% admitted compulsorily under the Mental Health Act and seven% have come into contact with the police as a result of their mental health.

Psychological therapies are recognised as effective treatments for a wide range of mental health problems. Since 2007 the Government's Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme has enabled more people to access National Institute of Health and Care Excellence-approved talking therapies. The current Government has invested in IAPT but progress has been patchy and the coalition says that there is still much to do before people with mental health problems receive the help and support they need. IAPT services are primarily there to help people with depression and anxiety and there is a need for specialist services for people with more complex mental health problems.

A joint survey of over 650 NHS therapists by the British Psychoanalytic Council (BPC) and the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) suggests that despite investment in IAPT, the situation in many areas is getting worse as other psychotherapy services are being cut back. More than half (57%) of therapists report an increase in waiting times over the last year and two thirds (62%) report shorter courses of treatment. Almost four out of five (77%) say they are seeing people with more complex needs coming through their doors.

Meanwhile, more and more people are turning to private providers in a bid to get the help they need. The We Need to Talk survey revealed that a quarter (24%) of people who have recently tried to access therapy have paid to go private, compared with just one in ten (11%) in 2013. The UKCP and BPC also surveyed 600 private therapists, 89% of whom say clients have come to them because the NHS could not give them the help they need.

Paul Farmer, Chair of the We Need to Talk coalition and Chief Executive of mental health charity Mind, said: "Our investigation shows that providers, frontline staff and those who use services are all united in the view that mental health services aren't currently set up to cope with demand. We know that in some parts of the country investment in IAPT and other models has transformed lives as people have been able to access the help they need when they need it. But far too many are facing unacceptably long waits or are struggling to even get a referral. This simply isn't good enough.

"At the same time as people are waiting for psychological therapies, prescriptions for antidepressants rise and rise and we have seen mental health services struggle to cope with the demand for beds and other crisis services.

"All three main political parties have been in power in the time we have had IAPT, so we know the commitment is there but we have yet to see the ambitions of the programme made a reality on the ground. Whoever forms our next government must redouble their efforts and make this a priority, ensuring fair access and establishing waiting times targets so that no matter where you live, you can get the help you need when you need it. We are calling on them to ensure the NHS in England offers a full range of evidence-based psychological therapies to everyone who needs them within 28 days of requesting a referral."
Example: Kerry

Kerry is 29 and lives in Lambeth. She has had depression and anxiety since she was 15. She received 12 sessions of person-centred counselling about two years ago, which she says really helped. This was provided outside of the NHS by a charity and was something that Kerry had to research and ask for herself. She is currently on the waiting list for a specialised psychological therapy to help her cope with the emotional trauma she has experienced after being raped in 2010. Three weeks ago tried to take her own life.

She says: "I had to push for three months to see a psychiatrist for a referral and then waited another two months before I got the letter confirming I had been referred. I am now on a four-month waiting list, which feels like a long time. I should have had this therapy a long time ago and it's only because I have pestered them on a daily basis that I have got this far. And it still feels so far away. In the meantime my depression has got worse and I feel like my life is passing me by. I feel like I am running a marathon every day.

"A friend of mine very kindly offered to pay for me to go private, but it's not right that it should come to that. Even if my friend can afford it there's no way I could accept that kind of generosity from a friend."
When the system works: Case study, TalkingSpace

TalkingSpace is the Oxfordshire Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) service, run as a partnership between Oxford Health NHS Trust and Oxfordshire Mind since 2009. The service is offering a high quality but high volume service which copes with 8,000 referrals per year and 6,000 people completing a course of treatment. The recovery rates are at 48% and 92% patient satisfaction. Over 100 people have moved off sick pay and benefits per year and they have trained 56 staff to deliver recommended talking treatments.

The ambition for the service in the coming year is to reach more people, helping more people towards recovery and improving their offer to older adults, BME communities and people with physical health problems.

NHS Oxfordshire CCG reported 1,670 assessments in quarter 4 of 2013/14, which is above the national average. Of these, 91% were assessed within 28 days of referral.

Centre for Mental Health deputy chief executive Andy Bell said: “Some 4.6 million people in England have both a long-term health condition and a mental health problem at the same time. This puts them at risk of poorer quality of life and of dying sooner. It also costs the NHS some £10 billion in extra healthcare. Offering evidence-based psychological therapies to people with long-term conditions as part of a better integrated approach to care could help to improve their health and reduce costs. The IAPT programme is finding ways to do this and it is vital that this work is sustained and expanded nationally so that no one misses out on the support they need when they need it."