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NHSE proposes new waiting-time target for child mental health services

Waiting room

By Emma Wilkinson
22 July 2021

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NHS England has proposed new waiting-time targets for patients with mental health problems, including a four-week maximum waiting time for children and young people.

The five new standards, set out in a consultation published today, include that a patient of any age referred urgently to a community-based mental health crisis service must be seen within 24 hours and a ‘very urgent’ patient seen within four hours. 

Children and young people presenting to community-based mental health services, should start to receive care within four weeks from when they were referred, which could be immediate advice and support for them and their families or carers or the start of a care plan or specialist assessment. 

The same target is also being put in place for adults and older adults who should have started a therapeutic intervention, or received a social intervention or an agreed patient care plan within four weeks. 

Patients referred from Accident and Emergency departments should be seen face to face by mental health liaison teams or equivalent children and young person’s service within one hour, under the proposals, which have already been piloted by some mental health providers and acute trusts. 

Announcing the consultation, NHS England said the new standards come on top of existing measures of to improve mental health access, including that 75% of people referred to the Improving Access to Psychology Therapies (IAPT) programme should begin treatment within six weeks and 95% of people referred should begin treatment within 18 weeks. 

NHS England added it was already the case that 95% of children and young people referred for an eating disorder should receive NICE-approved treatment within one week for urgent cases and four weeks for all others. 

It comes after the majority of trust leaders said in May that waiting times for children and young people’s mental health services have worsened over the past six months.

GPs have been also swamped with increasing numbers of patients with mental health problems during the pandemic.  

Dr Simon Hodes, a GP in Watford, said mental health standards were ‘so needed’ and could make a huge difference to patients if it becomes a reality.

‘It will depend on the resources and the staff being available of course. There’s huge burden of mental health problems and making access direct from patients has been a huge step forward for adults via self-referral / IAPT.

‘We also have a PCN based mental health nurse which can be useful too. Locally I would really like to see self-referral and IAPT for CAMHS too as this all currently has to flow via the GP which often adds a delay and a barrier for some. Our referrals are often rejected, or parents simply sent self-help forms, advice and directed to web sites / other resources.’

In April, the CQC announced it would review provision of children and young people’s mental health services during Covid-19, taking into account access across the whole pathway. 

NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens said: ‘Together with the guarantee that mental health investment will increase each year as a share of the growing NHS budget – as has been the case each year since 2015 – 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”.’   

Claire Murdoch, the NHS’s national mental health director, added that the new standards would ensure people who need care ‘know when they can expect to receive it and will support more rapid access to evidence-based treatment and support’.      

Knowing that the NHS is ‘committed to timely access to support’ could make all the difference as we come out of the pandemic and plan for the future, Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, said. 

‘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,’ he added.  

Deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, Saffron Cordery, said: ‘We welcome this consultation on mental health access standards.

‘The full mental health impact of the pandemic is still emerging, but trust leaders are reporting extraordinary pressures.

‘In particular, a high proportion of children and young people not previously known to services are coming forward, and they are more unwell, with more complex problems than in the past.’

Consultation on the standards will run to 1 September. 

A version of this story was initially published on our sister title Pulse.

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