Analysis: Mental health crisis will lead to a surge in referrals for NHS’ talking therapy service

A mental health crisis on an ‘unprecedented’ scale will lead to a surge in referrals to the NHS’ talking therapy service. Such a leap in demand will leave the country’s 54 NHS mental health trusts crippled with demand and unable to cope with patients left to tackle anxiety and depression alone.

Analysis by IESO Digital Health reveals an expected four-fold (312%) increase in the number of people referred for IAPTs treatment in October.

Based on the predictions for IAPTs referrals pre-COVID-19, combined with the expected surge in referrals for those who have put off or been unable to seek help during the lockdown, nearly 643,000 patients are likely to be referred to the IAPTs talking therapy service by October compared to the expected 156,000 under non-COVID circumstances.

Current forecasts do not account for the additional expected leap in demand for mental health services created by the pandemic itself and the subsequent economic fallout that is likely to leave the country reeling and push referral numbers much higher.

Last month the Institute for Fiscal Studies warned that the coronavirus pandemic had worsened mental health unlike 'anything seen in recent years'. It found that around 7.2 million people in the UK aged 16 and over are experiencing at least one mental health issue ‘much more than usual'.

Meanwhile UN health experts have warned of the likelihood of an upsurge in the number and severity of mental illnesses across world and urged governments to put the issue "front and center" of their responses.

The IAPT programme, rolled out in 2009, helps people with common mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder.

In April 2015, NHS England brought in the target for 75% of people referred to IAPTs to start treatment within six weeks, and 95% within 18 weeks.

Commenting on the findings, Sarah Bateup, Ieso Digital Health chief clinical officer, said:

“No one should have to wait weeks let alone months or even years for their mental health treatment – not getting the right support can be life-threatening.

“These data clearly show the sheer scale and unprecedented task facing the country. With the best will in the world, the NHS will not be able to tackle this level of referrals on its own.

We need innovative solutions, including the use of technology, to see and treat patients as quickly and safely as possible and get them back on the road to recovery.”

There is the real risk that the mental health impact of COVID-19 will be more severe than the physical effects of the virus, this coupled with the expected huge increase in IAPTs referrals means we are seeing a very worrying trend. Patient referral rates have been alarmingly low since lockdown across IAPT services in England - in London alone we have seen up to a 50% reduction in referrals in March and April. This is a concern because we know that people are struggling with their mental health and haven’t been reaching out for support from the NHS. There is a wealth of digital technology that is enabling therapy to continue without people needing to leave their homes. Now is this the time to harness this to a much greater degree.”

Ross O’Brien, Digital Innovation Director at Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust

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