Mental health problems are a ‘parallel pandemic’ that the NHS is ill-equipped to tackle, leaders warn

The NHS is ill-equipped to tackle the ‘parallel pandemic’ hidden in mental illness with many patients lacking adequate treatment, leaders have warned.

The cost of living crisis and the aftermath of the Covid epidemic have led to an increase in the number of people suffering from mental health problems.

But the true scale of the problems could be even greater, health experts warn, because it’s impossible to tell how many people still need to come forward for treatment.

Saffron Cordery, interim chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospital funds, warned the scale of the problem meant it was imperative it was addressed quickly, with her organization previously estimating that 8 million people who had it need do not access mental health care.

It comes as recent NHS data showed an estimated 25% of 17-19 year olds have a mental health problem, up from 17% last year.

In an interview with the independent, Ms Cordery warned: ‘I was talking to a [NHS trust] CEO the other day who was telling me that their impression is that what has happened to mental health over the last few years – in terms of people suffering from these conditions and disorders – is like a parallel pandemic. I agree with this assessment.”

“We really need to address the significant and unmet need for mental health care.”

Mental health issues “have flown under the radar” as the NHS battled the Covid pandemic, he suggested, and there has since been a rise in the number of people seeking help and accessing services.

“And those are just the ones we know about,” Ms. Cordery said. “The situation we have to worry about is people who haven’t come forward for treatment.”

He also warned that the problem could get worse as the cost-of-living crisis threatens to exacerbate mental health problems.

The crisis is expected to have two consequences. The first is an increase in the number of people experiencing mental health problems for the first time, while the second is that some who already suffer from it will find a decline in their mental health.

Rosena Allin-Khan, shadow minister for mental health, said: “Demand for mental health care continues to grow, with many patients, including children, languishing for days in emergency departments, waiting for a bed to mental health.

“The government is simply not in control of the crisis. Without access to timely care, mental illnesses will only get worse.”

“After 12 years of conservative mismanagement, our public services and economy are on the brink.”

The independent revealed last month that patients suffering from mental illness are increasingly struggling to access help at all levels of the NHS.

Some are waiting up to eight days in emergency departments for a hospital bed, while record numbers are facing “unacceptable” delays for referrals.

More than 16,000 adults and 20,000 children expected to receive NHS care are unable to access vital services every month, the latest figures show.

Mark Rowland, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, said: “The NHS does a great job, but we know that our mental health services, just like our health service, are stretched to breaking point. A prevention-focused approach is needed now more than ever.”

He also cautioned that research has shown financial strain and poverty are “key contributors” to mental health problems.

“Without clear preventive action from government to support people and communities, there will be an increase in mental health problems across the UK and further demand for mental health services,” he said.

“We know from previous recessions that key investments in community and labor market programs protect the mental health of vulnerable people and save lives.”

In particular, he called for more training for frontline public service personnel, such as debt counselors and job center workers.

Such measures would also have a positive economic impact, he said.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “We know the pandemic has impacted not only people’s physical health, but their mental health as well. NHS mental health services remained open and all mental health centers put in place urgent help lines for people going through a crisis.

He added that the government was increasing investment in NHS mental health services by £2.3 billion a year by 2024, meaning 2 million more people would be able to access health support mental health funded by the NHS.

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