Rising demand for mental health care

Page last updated: 21 October 2022

The impact of the pandemic on people’s mental health is well recognised. The Centre for Mental Health has estimated that up to 10 million people, including 1.5 million children, are likely to need new or additional mental health support as a direct result of the crisis.

Over the last year, Mind and Rethink Mental Illness have reported an increase in demand for their services. For example, in the 12 months since the first national lockdown was announced, Rethink reported a 175% increase in demand for advice and information on their website.

But the pandemic has not affected everyone equally, with some people more at risk of developing mental health problems due to their social and economic circumstances. Research published by the Mental Health Foundation in July 2020 highlighted that among those disproportionally affected by COVID-19 were young adults, older people, people with pre-existing mental health problems, people with long-term conditions, single parents, transgender people, those unemployed or in insecure employment, those from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and women.

Through our Give Feedback on Care service between April and December 2020, we heard that when some people sought help for their mental health from primary care services, they reported issues including feeling ignored by the GP or not having their symptoms taken seriously. People with mental health needs also felt that they could not get a referral to a specialist from their GP because of a lack of capacity in community mental health services.

Not being able to access the right care and support when it is needed increases the risk of individuals’ mental health deteriorating. This is a long-standing challenge, which has been exacerbated by the increased demand on mental health services due to COVID-19.

Our inspection teams have raised concerns about people being admitted to mental health services with more severe mental ill-health. They have also told us about people presenting in emergency departments and acute trusts struggling to find appropriate places for them due to a lack of suitable provision.

Through our provider collaboration reviews, we have heard of many examples where systems and providers have recognised the increasing demand and put in place adaptations to meet this need. For example, to reduce attendance at emergency departments, we heard of pathways being redesigned so that people with acute mental health needs were diverted to a more appropriate setting. Front door screening at hospitals aimed to ensure that people were either directed to the right place in the building or were directed to a different service or a different place. Systems also told us about new phonelines that had been set up during the pandemic, including 24/7 mental health crisis lines, to improve access. However, our inspectors have expressed concern that solutions put in place to address challenges with support and access would disappear after the pandemic has subsided, even though the issues remain.

As with other areas of health care, we saw that the increased use of digital technology had a positive impact for some people. This included for example, the use of online mental wellbeing apps. Video calling was also beneficial for some people as it made it easier for people, for example those with chaotic lifestyles, to keep scheduled appointments. However, the use of digital technology was not accessible or suitable for everyone, and excluded some, with the importance of face-to-face appointments still recognised.

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