What can be done to help address the mental health backlog?

It has been well documented in recent months that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to serious backlogs in many essential NHS services, particularly elective care and mental health.

But for patients seeking support with mental health issues, the problem is twofold: not only has the pandemic seen essential services reduced to a minimum as healthcare staff have been channelled into urgent care and COVID-19, the combined effects of lockdowns and ongoing restrictions have also led to a significant rise in mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.

According to a recent analysis of data from NHS Digital carried out by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the NHS received an unprecedented 4.3 million referrals for specialist mental health services in 2021. This represents a substantial increase from the previous year, when 3.8 million referrals were received. Furthermore, this figure fails to account for ‘hidden referrals’, which describes those people who may still be holding back from seeking support. In reality, the figure could be even higher.


Dr Adrian James, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists expressed his concern about the future of mental health services in the UK. He said: “Staff are working flat-out to give their patients the support they need, but the lack of resources and lack of staff mean it’s becoming an impossible situation to manage.”

The UK Government has acknowledged the importance of getting mental health services back on track, and in a bid to address excessive backlogs for this essential service, have pledged to increase funding whilst urging those in need of support to seek help.

A spokesperson for the NHS said: “the NHS Long Term Plan is investing an additional £2.3 billion every year into mental health services, with nine in 10 adults seeing a mental health professional within six weeks of a referral for adult talking therapies. Anyone who thinks they may need care should come forward so the NHS can support them.”

However, in light of increasing demands for mental health services, will additional funding be enough to address the crippling backlogs and make sure that people in need receive essential support in a timely fashion?

The increase in funding for mental health services is not, in itself, enough. In addition, the NHS needs to modernise services and embrace technological advances in order to meet the needs of the population. As outlined in the NHS Long Term Plan, there is a need for NHS services to streamline and undergo a digital transformation in order to provide people with the ongoing support they need to help them manage their mental health.

Technology can provide an effective tool for mental health clinicians to improve the efficiency of services, enhance the patient experience and support the delivery of care in a meaningful, measurable way.