Survey puts spotlight on “inordinate” strain NHS is under, as people severely affected by mental illness struggle to access essential support

27 February 2023

Rethink Mental Illness call on government to keep its promise to publish a 10-year Plan for Mental Health and Wellbeing, that would challenge causes of mental illness and reduce demand on NHS.

A new survey of over 200 people who experience severe mental illness, including diagnoses such as schizophrenia, bipolar and personality disorders, has shed more light on the huge pressure the NHS is under as it strives to meet the rising demand for mental health support.

The survey shows pressure across the system, from GPs to emergency and crisis services. In a sign that people severely affected by mental illness are struggling to even reach the first hurdle to access crucial support over the winter, 55% of those surveyed said they had encountered issues accessing a GP for support in the last few months, and 64% agreed that coverage of capacity issues in the NHS has made them less likely to seek support if they needed it from their GP.

Issues reported included waiting months for a face-to-face appointment, or being unable to see a doctor so they could get essential medication.

Subsequently, 46% of people reported issues accessing their community mental health team in the last few months, with 56% of people reporting that coverage of capacity issues made them less likely to seek support this way.

A smaller number of those surveyed reported issues accessing a crisis or urgent help phoneline. But of those who indicated needing this support, 41% found it difficult to access local urgent help phonelines, and 37% found it difficult to access support at A&E, reporting extreme waiting times, delays and added stress due to the experience. One respondent reported being told not to attend at all due to demand.

But it was in this area that coverage of capacity issues in the NHS has had the biggest impact, with 68% of people severely affected by mental illness saying they were less likely to seek support from A&E if they needed it, with 49% indicating the same for urgent help phonelines.

Rachel, from the West Midlands, has struggled to access support to help her manage her diagnosis of bipolar disorder:

"I have bi-polar among other things and one of my main struggles is making phone calls and reaching out for help. In the past few months when I have been able to make the calls I have found I am either made to wait weeks at a time or simply told to ring back at a later date.

“Accessing my GP is almost impossible and the waiting lists for counselling and stuff is awful. I understand there is minimal funding and it can’t be helped, but it has impacted on my mental health to the point I rarely ask for help now until I am in crisis or really poorly that I actually reach out or I ask others to do so on my behalf."

Speaking of their experience of trying to access emergency care due to an episode of self-harm, Mary said:

"I had to attend A&E a few weeks due to an episode of self-harm. My CPN (Community Psychiatric Nurse) took me, but I was made to feel I shouldn’t be there and waited over eight hours to be seen, only to have a crisis assessment outside in the rain in the hospital car park as there were no spare rooms inside."

Rethink Mental Illness is calling on the government to recognise that soaring demand for NHS mental health services can only be tackled by addressing the drivers of mental illness, asking it to reconsider the decision to abandon a dedicated 10-Year Plan for Mental Health and Wellbeing in England that would have identified action from across all government departments to improve the nation’s mental health, rather than pile ever-more demand on the NHS.

Mark Winstanley, Chief Executive of Rethink Mental Illness, said:
“Our snapshot of how challenging it has proved to access essential support this winter shows how much NHS services are struggling to meet existing demand, which is deeply concerning given the likelihood that the need for support will continue to grow.

“The government’s decision to scrap the proposed 10-Year Plan for Mental Health and Wellbeing shows an absolute failure to prioritise mental health at the very moment that it’s most needed. Mental health does not exist in isolation, it’s worsened by factors such as financial deprivation, insecure housing and social isolation, and we need government departments to realise their potential to tackle these issues by working together, rather than continuing to look solely at the NHS to solve the current mental health crisis.

“All the funding in the world for NHS mental health services will not address the growing demand for support. The government needs to recognise that the growing mental health crisis facing this country requires a specific cross department plan of action. Falling short of that will fail people severely affected by mental illness, damaging their prospects of a better quality of life, or putting them at greater risk of crisis.”


The survey data was gathered online between 13th – 31st January 2023 and completed by 231 respondents who either live with or care for someone severely affected by mental illness.