Written by Lauren Geall
As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists has warned that the NHS is facing an “impossible situation” as the unprecedented demand for mental health services triggered by the pandemic has left it struggling to keep up. It’s a sign the government needs to take immediate action, argues Stylist’s Lauren Geall.
I first sought help for my mental health in autumn 2016. A month or two into the first term of my second year at university, I’d found myself confronted with wave after wave of anxiety, which had grown steadily worse since the start of the year. It was unlike the low-level anxiety I’d experienced previously – and I knew something wasn’t right.
I was, of course, nervous about the prospect of opening up to a stranger – it was something I’d never done before, and it was hard to imagine what receiving help would feel like.
It took weeks for me to work up the courage to simply fill in a form on my university’s wellbeing services page and even more courage to answer the phone for my first consultation. But I did it because I was confident it would help me get back on track.
That wasn’t the case, though. When I got through to the university’s wellbeing service, they told me their waiting list was too long for me to even join, and advised me to seek support on the NHS.
Then, the NHS took over a month to get back to me to offer an initial telephone consultation, after which they said they’d only be able to give me six weeks of instant-messaging therapy (which, in my case, didn’t help at all). When that didn’t work, I was put on antidepressants, which even after months of consecutive use, failed to offer much relief.
Of course, by this point, my mental health had become much worse. I’d tried to seek help when I first felt rubbish, but six months later I had no diagnosis and very little support. On the outside, I was functioning, but on the inside, I was in complete turmoil.
I was one of the lucky ones, however. After another trip to my GP, where further help was denied to me because I – and I quote – “just worried too much”, my dad was able to get me a referral for a private psychiatrist thanks to a health insurance scheme he had through his work. Within a week, I was sitting in front of a psychiatrist, who diagnosed me with severe OCD and questioned how I’d been able to continue functioning for so long.
At last, I was finally given the correct antidepressant dosage (it turned out mine was much too low) and referred to a therapist who’d be able to help. I was relieved, of course, but also frustrated. Not only had I suffered eight months of turmoil that might not have happened had I received help sooner, but I’d only been able to access the help because of my financial situation – something I’m well aware is not an option for many people.
Ever since then, I’ve found it hard to watch as the number of people struggling to access mental health care on the NHS has grown. From a report revealing that two-fifths of patients waiting for mental health treatment end up resorting to emergency or crisis services to warnings that 8 million people are unable to access help because they’re not considered ‘sick enough’ to qualify, it’s not hard to see how desperate the situation really is.
Just last week, the Royal College of Psychiatrists warned that mental health services were struggling to keep up with the unprecedented demand triggered by the pandemic. While the NHS was able to deliver 1.8 million mental health consultations in December 2021, an estimated 1.4 million people are still waiting for treatment – and many who have been given support are being sent far away from home because of a lack of beds in their area.
“As the pressure on services continues to ratchet up, the silence from government continues to be of grave concern for the college, the wider mental health workforce and, most importantly, our patients,” the college’s president, Dr Adrian James, told the BBC.
“The warning of the long tail of mental ill-health caused by the pandemic has not been heeded. Many thousands of people will be left waiting far too long for the treatment they need unless the government wakes up to the crisis that is engulfing the country.”
In response, a government spokesperson explained that they are “committed to ensuring everyone is able to access the help and advice they need”, referring to the additional £2.3 billion a year being invested into mental health services by 2023/24, on top of the £500 million that was made available last year as part of their mental health recovery plan. They also confirmed they would be launching a “national conversation” to develop a “new long-term mental health plan” later in the year.
Don’t get me wrong – putting aside more funding for mental health services is great. However, without a long-term, fully funded plan that addresses the key issues the NHS is facing (such as the number of mental health staff facing burnout as a result of the increased demand), it’s merely a sticking plaster solution.
The lack of urgency implicit in these responses is also an issue. Setting a target to invest money ‘by’ 2023/24 and confirming that a national conversation will be launched ‘later this year’ doesn’t match up with the crisis the NHS and its patients are really facing – a crisis that urgently needs immediate and sustained action.
As one of the millions of people who have navigated the NHS’ mental health system in the past, I’m well aware how incredibly hard the people employed by the service are working, but I also know how stomach-churning it feels to hang up the phone after a telephone consultation and feel completely and utterly alone.
It’s a feeling I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, but it’s a reality that thousands upon thousands of us are dealing with on a yearly basis – and it has to change.
After years’ worth of warnings, the time for ‘commitments’ and ‘conversations’ is long gone. The UK’s mental health system is in crisis, and we need the government to stand up and do what’s right for the professionals and patients bearing the brunt of the chaos.
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 services.
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] In a crisis, call 999.
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