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1 in 5 wait too long for urgent mental health assessment in Northern Ireland

A substantial number of people in need of an urgent mental health assessment wait longer than the two-hour target.

Uncovered through a series of Freedom of Information requests to NHS trusts by BBC NI, the worrying figures refer to assessments carried out in emergency departments (ED) across Northern Ireland.

Two hours is the target for anyone presenting to an ED to be seen for a mental health assessment.

Set by the Health and Social Care Board, the benchmark was intended to shorten waiting times for individuals who may be in a significantly vulnerable state.

But thousands of appointments have missed the target across Northern Ireland, with some individuals reportedly waiting for more than 8 hours for assessment.

According to the data, around 43,000 people were in need of an urgent mental health assessment between January 2017 and September 2020 – around 8,000 of whom had to wait over two hours to be seen.

The Belfast Trust presented the poorest figures, with over 30% of assessments occurring after a 2-hour wait – however it also had one of the lowest total number of assessments.

Of the almost 9,000 patients assessed by the Belfast Trust in total, 70 waited for over 8 hours and some even waited for more than 12.

The trust with the best figures was the Northern Trust which reported that around 10% of their 12,121 assessments missed the waiting time target.

"This can be challenging at times due to the overall growth in demand for mental health assessments, including an increase in referrals from our emergency departments,” a spokesperson for the South Eastern Trust told the BBC.

"In addition, the region's long-standing workforce pressures impact on our capacity to respond to referrals within target, although we are continuously working with commissioners to further develop our mental health early liaison provision."

The figures

Very little has been revealed as to how trusts in Northern Ireland have been dealing with mental health cases during the pandemic, but other areas of the UK paint a similarly stark picture.

Fuelling the concept of an incoming 'mental health crisis', antidepressant prescriptions reached their highest level ever in 2020 as face-to-face support ceased.

In Scotland, the number of mental health inpatients reached its highest level in two decades in 2019/20, prompting calls for more investment as figures are expected to keep rising.


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