The quality of mental health services and providing access to them is the number one issue for local Healthwatch in 2016, according to Healthwatch England.

Healthwatch England’s annual survey of health and care priorities, which took in views from all 152 local Healthwatches, found that more than half raised this as a priority for the coming 12 months.

Collectively, local Healthwatch highlighted a range of concerns, citing reports from the public about lengthy waiting times for treatment referral, GPs ‘not understanding’ their mental health needs and a lack of community and crisis care.

Other priorities for local Healthwatch for the coming year include: primary care services, social care services, services working together better and hospital discharge.

Healthwatch England’s early research identified a strong desire from the public to work with health professionals to design services that deliver more responsive and flexible low level mental health support. This will give people more of what they need to stay well and ease pressure on hard pressed GPs.

Suggestions put forward by the public included: 

Enabling people to ‘self-refer’ rather than having to go through a GP to access mental health support

Offering in-house counselling services through GP surgeries so that there is greater collaboration to promote physical and mental wellbeing

Working with family doctors to ensure staff are better trained to recognise mental health problems early and help people reach support

Greater focus in schools to educate young people about mental health and the support out there to help avoid problems developing

Better use of peer support arrangements – to call on the experiences of past patients to help others dealing with similar mental health challenges.

Local Healthwatch have already identified a number of areas where new approaches to mental health are being trialled but Healthwatch England wants to see greater focus on commissioners working with the public to develop new and more efficient ways of delivering services designed around people’s wants and needs.

Katherine Rake, chief executive of Healthwatch England, said: “As attitudes to mental health change and some of the stigma begins to fade away, health bosses need to use this opportunity to refocus services around helping people to identify and manage conditions earlier.

“When we speak to people they say it is all about improving the flexibility to access more low level support when and for as long as they need, not sticking to a one-size-fits-all approach of pre-set care packages. 

“Yet still too often we hear from those accessing mental health support and their families that they feel the clock is ticking, and that if they are not ‘better’ by the end of their course of counselling they will be left to cope on their own.

“This is just one of many areas where the Healthwatch network is providing insight into how people want services to change to make best use of resources and meet their needs.

“We are pleased the NHS and care services are listening, but we want to see every health professional make it their personal New Year’s resolution for 2016 to work with patients as partners in designing the future of services in England.”   

Community and Social Care Minister, Alistair Burt, said: "Mental health stigma is on the decline but there is more to do. We have given the NHS more money than ever before for mental health, with an increase to £11.7 billion last year, and are introducing access and waiting time targets for the first time.

 “NHS England’s Mental Health Taskforce will report early in 2016 and the Department will look at a range of services for ensuring continued progress towards our commitment to parity of esteem. The additional £600 million over five years will support the development of this as part of the Government’s £10 billion commitment to the NHS.

“Investing an additional £600 million in mental health services will mean that significantly more people will have access to talking therapies every year by 2020 and the government will work to set out transformative plans.

“We have made great strides in the way that we think about and treat mental health in this country. As well as providing care for those in crisis, it is right that we invest in helping people early on so they can avoid that crisis and manage their conditions at home rather than in hospital.”