New survey reveals stark impact of NHS mental health treatment waiting times

25 June 2024

  • Charity calls on next government to ‘fix the mental health system’ as majority of people who attempted to access mental health services within last two years feel they weren’t seen quickly enough, with four in five experiencing a deterioration in their mental health.

  • One-third of people whose mental health worsened while waiting for treatment took time off work, with some respondents stating they lost their jobs. 

  • Wider impact on public services highlighted, with people needing emergency medical care and coming into contact with police as mental health worsens. 

  • One-third turn to private mental health treatment amid cost-of-living crisis. 

New research has painted a picture of overwhelmed mental health services struggling to provide timely and consistent care, with people falling into crisis and attempting suicide as they wait for treatment. 

Rethink Mental Illness, the charity for people severely affected by mental illness, analysed responses to a survey by 656 people who had attempted to access mental health services in England within the last two years.  

The survey reveals the impact of waiting times on individuals and wider public services, with four in five (80%) experiencing a deterioration in their mental health as they waited for support. This is reinforced by additional analysis of NHS data carried out by the charity alongside the survey which reveals that those waiting the longest for adult community mental health care (727 days) have waited twice as long as those waiting for elective care (315 days). 

Of those whose mental health deteriorated, 64 percent experienced a mental health crisis, 25 percent attempted suicide, 42 percent had to seek urgent and emergency care, and 22 percent had contact with the police due to their distress. Meanwhile, one-third of people whose mental health had deteriorated had to take time off work (34%), with some respondents indicating they had lost their jobs. 

With only one in five people (21%) feeling they had received treatment in adequate time, the survey adds weight to longstanding concerns that under-resourced mental health services are unable to provide timely care. Most respondents (58%) did not believe that they had received treatment quickly enough. 

The survey also indicates that challenges in accessing care do not end once someone has been seen by mental health services: 66 percent of people reported that they did not receive mental health support for a sufficient and appropriate time, and 35 percent said the support they received was too brief to be effective, often describing interventions that ended prematurely. One-quarter of respondents highlighted a lack of follow-up care and continuity in treatment (25%), which affected the overall effectiveness of their support. 

The survey raises further concerns that people could be falling between the gaps in services, with 41 percent stating that they were denied support from services because their condition wasn’t considered severe enough, while 35 percent said they were denied support because their condition was considered too severe. 

Perhaps surprisingly during a cost-of-living crisis, over one-third of people (35%) said they’d sought private mental health treatment, underlining the impact of long waiting times for NHS services. 

Mark Winstanley, Chief Executive of Rethink Mental Illness, said:  

“This survey reveals the real-life consequences of a failure to ensure mental health services have enough resources to meet demand, with people losing their jobs, falling into crisis, coming into contact with the emergency services and even attempting suicide as they wait too long for treatment.  

“Significant funding has been injected into the system, but the challenges of recent years have increased the need for support, and despite the incredibly hard work of staff, mental health services have deteriorated to breaking point. Six years on from our previous survey into access to treatment, it appears that while the pressures on the public’s mental health have multiplied, people continue to face lengthy waits for support, with high thresholds to qualify for treatment acting as a barrier to care. 

“There cannot be a sense of fatalism and shoulder-shrugging at poor access to support and treatment for people experiencing mental illness. Nor can this be seen as simply an ‘NHS problem’ with the drivers of demand for services being multi-faceted. With sufficient political will, we can build a mental health system that provides timely and high-quality care. This will require a shift in approach, with government working across its departments to help prevent mental ill-health in the first place, alongside ensuring the NHS can treat people from the first signs of poor mental health up to crisis. We’re calling on the next government to make fixing our mental health system a priority.”  

Zoe, 30, said: “Accessing mental health care is a postcode lottery. My treatment had been managed well under one NHS trust after my bipolar diagnosis, and I knew exactly who to contact for help at the first signs I was becoming unwell again. Unfortunately, I did not have the same experience when I moved to a new area. I was going through a medication change at the time, and this wasn’t monitored as closely as it should have been. When I experienced a severe episode as a result, I couldn’t get through to the new community mental health team and had to wait months for an appointment. This left me in crisis and experiencing suicidal thoughts. The feeling that I wasn’t being taken seriously further contributed to my depressed mood. Eventually I had no choice but to access private therapy, and this helped me get back to a place where I was able to advocate for the medical treatment I needed.” 

Steve, 63, said: “My wife was diagnosed with schizophrenia 20 years ago, and she recently became unwell again. My first attempt to get her an assessment at the community mental health service was ignored. It seems that there needs to be a crisis and threat to life before any support is given. We had to wait four days in A&E for a bed in a mental health hospital, during which time her condition severely deteriorated. It makes what is already a very difficult event even more traumatic and has had a significant impact on my own mental health.” 

Notes to editor 

The findings from this survey reflect the experiences of people living with mental illness in England and their carers. 656 complete responses were received through the online survey, which ran during February and March of 2024. We asked people about their experiences during the last two years, after the pandemic restrictions came to an end in England. 

For further information or more detail from case studies, please contact Jamie Morrell, Media Manager, via or call 0207 840 3138. 

About Rethink Mental Illness 

No matter how bad things are, we can help people severely affected by mental illness to improve their lives. We’re Rethink Mental Illness, a leading charity provider of mental health services in England.  

  • We support tens of thousands of people through our groups, services and advice and information.  

  • We train employees, employers and members of the public on how best to support someone affected by mental illness.  

  • We campaign for the rights of people living with mental illness and their carers.  

Working alongside the people we support, we are saving lives.  

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