Mental health: more nurses urgently needed as referrals soar

Pandemic sees surge in demand for treatment for conditions, including anxiety and depression

RCN says government must do more to address gaps in mental health nursing workforce as NHS data shows more than four million patient referrals in 2021

NHS data shows more than four million mental health referrals in 2021
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More mental health nurses are urgently needed to provide specialist care as referrals for treatment in England hit a record high, health leaders have warned.

Analysis of NHS data by the Royal College of Psychiatrists found specialist mental health services received more than 4.3 million referrals in 2021, including more than a million for children.

Essential that the government addresses workforce gaps to keep up with patient demand – RCN

This is up from more than 3.8 million referrals the previous year and just under 3.8 million in 2019 with the pandemic contributing to a surge in demand for treatment for conditions, including anxiety and depression.

RCN professional lead for mental health Stephen Jones said addressing gaps in the mental health nursing workforce was ‘essential’ to keeping up with patient demand.

‘Record referrals show the detrimental impact of the pandemic and the need for more specialist mental health nursing staff to deal with this,’ he said.

‘The government must do more to recruit talented nurses and retain the experienced staff, sick of feeling undervalued.’

Numbers of mental health nurses have fallen over the past decade despite increasing demand for mental healthcare.

Latest NHS workforce statistics show there were 38,987 mental health nurses employed in hospitals, community and mental health services in England as of November 2021 – down from more than 40,000 in 2010.

Impossible situation to manage due to lack of resources and staff, says college

Meanwhile, regional vacancy rates for mental health nurses as of December 2021 vary from just over 12% in the North East and Yorkshire to nearly 22% in the South East.

With 1.4 million people waiting for treatment, the Royal College of Psychiatrists called for a fully funded plan for mental health services backed by a long-term workforce strategy.

College president Dr Adrian James said: ‘Staff are working flat out to give their patients the support they need, but lack of resources and lack of staff mean it’s becoming an impossible situation to manage.’

The Department of Health and Social and Care said it would be launching a ‘national conversation’ to inform the development of a new long term mental health plan later this year.

‘We are committed to ensuring everyone is able to access the help and advice they need, which is why we are investing an additional £2.3 billion a year into mental health services by 2023-24 on top of the £500 million we have made available to address the impact of the pandemic,’ said a spokesperson.

The goal is to recruit an extra 27,000 mental health professionals by 2023-24.

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