New waiting time standards announced for mental health care in England

Updated: Aug 23


NHS logo in heart
Image credit: Nicolas J Leclercq

People with an 'urgent' referral to NHS mental health services in England will need to be seen within 24 hours as part of new guidelines


In 2019, the NHS Long Term Plan was published with the intention to provide a framework for improving healthcare services in line with rising demand and technological advances.


The Plan formed the basis of new healthcare standards which the NHS would need to abide by to ensure the NHS could operate as needed. Included among these standards are benchmarks for mental health services which all NHS Trusts are expected to meet. One example is that 75% of people referred to NHS psychological therapy should begin treatment within 6 weeks from referral, and 95% within 18 weeks.


In addition to the existing standards, NHS England has now announced 5 new waiting time guarantees to ensure appropriate care for people referred for mental health support. The standards are as follows:

  • People with an 'urgent' referral to a community-based mental health crisis service must be seen within 24 hours from referral, regardless of age

  • People with a ‘very urgent’ referral to a community-based mental health crisis service should be seen within 4 hours from referral

  • Patients referred from A&E should receive face-to-face contact from a mental health professional within 1 hour

  • Young people and their families or carers who present to a community-based mental health service should start to receive care within 4 weeks from referral

  • Adults and older adults who present to a community-based mental health service should start to receive care within 4 weeks from referral


Achieving healthcare parity


Outside of ensuring timely and efficient support being provided to those of us that might need to access mental health services, the new standards are also a step toward achieving so-called 'healthcare parity'.


This means to develop mental health services to the same level as physical health care by improving everything from funding to treatment access.


And that's exactly what these services will do, according to NHS chief executive Simon Stevens: “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’.”

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NHS mental health director Claire Murdoch is equally as positive about the new standards, claiming that they ensure that those "who need care know when they can expect to receive it and will support more rapid access to evidence-based treatment and support.


“They will help with work already underway with the NHS turning the tide in mental health for a range of conditions as part of the Long Term Plan."


Meeting rising demand


The new benchmarks for mental health services seem to be coming at the right time, as many reports suggest an exponential growth in demand for professional support in the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic.


But whether the standards are realistic will depend on adequate funding for the sector which has long been up for debate. Much criticism has been levelled at the government for not investing enough while figures have revealed historical failings in the system.


Despite this reputation though, the government has reacted to calls for more funding in recent months. Late last year, chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a £500 million investment in the sector to offset the mental health impact of the pandemic, £79 million of which will go toward improving services for young people.


Mark Winstanley, chief executive of Rethink Mental Illness, echoes the positivity of Stevens and Murdoch regarding the new standards, but also highlighted the need for an appropriate workforce to enforce them: “These standards act as building blocks on which we can build a potentially first class model of mental health care and recognise the universal truth that the quicker we can step in to provide high quality treatment, close to home for someone living with mental illness, the more we improve prospects of recovery," he commented.


"While they will depend on the right staff being in post they will also set the bar for something similar in social care, where so much of someone’s support for their mental illness actually takes place.”


The NHS is currently consulting on the new standards. Read the full NHS Long Term Plan here.


Marco Ricci

Editor and contributor for Talking Mental Health