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Mental health – are waiting times the real issue?

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has promised £120 million to help improve access to mental health services. But is it enough? And could the focus on waiting times be masking deeper issues, such as shrinking funding and lack of resources?

In December 2013, an investigation by Community Care and BBC News found that NHS spending on mental health services had not kept up with inflation, despite increased demand. This followed warnings from psychiatrists, psychologists and mental health nurses that the mental health system was in crisis, with more than 1700 beds being lost since April 2011. 

Despite the Government's assertion that more people are being treated outside hospital by community mental health teams, the situation doesn't seem to have improved significantly. Now Nick Clegg has announced that, should the coalition be re-elected, they will set new waiting time targets for mental health, bringing what has traditionally been the NHS's 'Cinderella' service into line with physical health.

Is this concentration on waiting times a sensible strategy? A recent survey by the We Need to Talk coalition of mental health charities found a much wider range of urgent issues affecting the quality of NHS mental care, including access to appropriate therapies. For example, of 2000 people surveyed, only 15 per cent were offered the full choice of talking therapies approved by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).

There's no doubt that speeding up access to treatment is of vital importance. The We Need to Talk survey also found that, while waiting for therapy, 67 per cent of people became more mentally unwell, 40 per cent harmed themselves and 1 in 6 attempted suicide. However, concentrating on waiting time targets may distract attention from the underlying problems, ie that resources are stretched to the limit and there is extreme pressure on all staff, from psychiatrists and psychologists to hospital based mental health nurses and community psychiatric nurses. 

A mental health commission led by former health minister Paul Burstow MP, which included representatives of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, recently found that mental health is underfunded by £10 billion. That could make Mr Clegg's £120 million of new funding look a little like a drop in the ocean.

What do you think of the Coalition's recent announcement on mental health waiting times? If you're a psychiatrist, psychologist or mental health nurse, we'd like to hear your views. Comment on this article or email us.

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