nick cleggThe government will introduce waiting time standards for mental health services for the first time next year, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has announced.

In addition, an extra £120 million has been committed to improve mental health services.

From April 2015, most patients needing talking therapies will be guaranteed the treatment they need in as little as 6 weeks, with a maximum wait of 18 weeks. For many patients experiencing their first episode of psychosis, the NHS will start to provide treatment within two weeks of referral – bringing it into line with consultations for cancer. 

Evidence shows that treating psychosis rapidly can dramatically improve patients’ chances of recovery and potentially save £44 million each year in hospital admissions.

Currently, most people who are referred for treatment for a physical health problem can expect to start their care within 6 weeks, with an absolute maximum of 18 weeks. Similarly, people referred for an urgent cancer consultation can expect to be seen within two weeks.  

The aim is that by 2020 waiting time standards will be extended to all mental health services.

It is hoped that the national waiting time standards will tackle the regional variations where some people have long waiting times for talking therapies as well as making sure that there is proper investment in making these services available within an acceptable time.

Other measures announced include:

Investment in psychiatry services in acute hospitals so that more people than ever who go to A&E in a mental health crisis, for example if they have self-harmed, will get the right help at the right time

A £7 million investment by NHS England to create 50 new inpatient beds for children and young people and better case management so that children with specialist needs get the right care in the right place, as close as possible to their homes and families. 

These announcements are part of a 5-year plan ‘Achieving Better Access to Mental Health Services by 2020’, which also includes a commitment to spend an extra £40 million on some mental health services this year and a further £80 million in 2015/16. 

“Whilst I have nothing but praise for the tremendous work of NHS staff, the system is still letting patients down,” said Clegg. “It’s wrong that relatives and friends needing a hip operation can expect treatment within a clear timeframe  but someone with a debilitating mental health condition has no clarity about when they will get help.

“For years, NHS waiting standards have existed for patients with physical ailments and they have drastically cut long waits. Now we are finally ending the injustice of people with mental health conditions waiting far too long for treatment with the first ever waiting time standards for NHS mental health services.”

Care and Support Minister, Norman Lamb, added:  “I want to build a fairer society and that means mental health has got to be a priority for everyone. As well as being potentially devastating for people affected, mental illness has an enormous impact on our economy. That’s why, through these plans, I am absolutely determined to make sure anyone with a mental health condition can expect the same standards of care as they would for a physical health problem. 

“I urge the whole health and care system to engage with these ambitious plans to drive up standards so that, by 2020, mental and physical health services will be given equal priority in all parts of the country.”

Welcome announcement

The government’s announcement has been welcomed by mental health organisations. Paul Farmer, chief executive of mental health charity Mind, said it was a “landmark moment” for mental health. 

“For too long, people accessing mental health services have not had the same right to timely treatment that we all expect if we have a physical health problem,” he said. “We know from our work as part of the We Need to Talk coalition that, as a consequence, 1 in 10 still wait over a year to access talking therapy. Today’s announcement not only acknowledges the unfair imbalance that has long existed between physical and mental health services, it is the first clear commitment from Government to take the practical steps needed to tackle it.

“Over recent years we have heard fine words from the Department of Health and NHS England about finally treating mental health with the same importance we give physical health but, in the face of cuts to services, the reality has been that the gap has widened and services have failed thousands. It’s good to see some additional funding committed in this plan.

“We now need to see these important ambitions translate into tangible improvements for everyone trying to access the help they need.” 

Mark Winstanley, chief executive of fellow mental health charity Rethink Mental Illness, agreed this was a “significant step” towards putting physical and mental health on an equal footing. “No one should have to wait months or even years for potentially life-changing treatment, just because they have a mental health problem rather than a physical one,” he said.

“We are also pleased that this plan includes more funding for crucial early intervention services for people with psychosis. Our Lost Generation report demonstrated how effective these services are, how they save the NHS money in the long-term and how important it is to investment in them.”

Professor Sir Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists added: “This five-year plan sets out a bold and compelling vision for bringing mental healthcare on a par with physical healthcare, and we call on the 2015-20 government to either do the right thing and see it through, or explain to those with mental health problems why they didn’t.”

Meanwhile, Sarah Brennan, chief executive of YoungMinds, while welcoming the announcement, hoped that the commitment extends to children and young people, because intervening early is absolutely vital. 

“The government’s current mental health taskforce which is investigating the crisis in children and young people’s mental health services must ensure the recommendations it makes lead to major improvements in service provision, and are resourced in the same way as this announcement about adult services.”