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People arriving at A&E suffering a mental health crisis will receive urgent help within an hour under a new plan to bring in treatment targets for those with psychological and psychiatric problems.
NHS England wants to introduce five new waiting time standards specifying how long those in need should have to wait for care, in a drive to reduce what are often long delays.
“These new waiting times standards are another key milestone in the journey to putting mental health on an equal footing with physical health, so-called ‘parity of esteem’,” said Sir Simon Stevens, NHS England’s chief executive.
Those set to benefit from a one-hour response include those suffering an exacerbation of schizophrenia, psychosis, extreme anxiety or depression, or having suicidal thoughts, which has led to a breakdown in their mental state.
Under the plans, which are subject to the outcome of a public consultation, the five new targets will mean that:
• People who end up in A&E in a mental health crisis will receive face-to-face care within an hour.
• Anyone referred urgently to community-based mental health services because their psychological health has worsened will help within 24 hours.
• ”Very urgent” referrals should get specialist help within four hours.
• Under-18s and their relatives or carers who seek help from community services should have their first appointment within four weeks.
• Adults referred to the same services will undergo their first “therapeutic intervention” or “a social intervention” or agree a care plan within the same four weeks.
The planned creation of the five targets is intended to give people in England who need mental health care maximum waiting times that closely resemble those which patients accessing physical health help have been covered by for many years, such as a four-hour wait in A&E.
However, experts raised questions over whether existing NHS services can deliver the new waiting times given staff shortages and the explosion in demand for mental health care due to Covid-19.
Mental health charities welcomed the move. “With increasing numbers of people reaching crisis point, it is critical that they get the right mental health support quickly, which these standards would help to achieve”, said Paul Farmer, the chief executive of Mind.
Mark Winstanley, the chief executive of Rethink Mental Illness, said the standards would “act as building blocks on which we can build a potentially first-class model of mental health care”. But he added that delivering them “will depend on the right staff being in post”.
Stevens has made improving access to mental health care a key priority during his more than seven-year tenure as NHS boss, which ends this week, for example through improved help for mothers suffering problems linked to giving birth and also those with an eating disorder.