Society today seems to be more aware of mental health than any before, with frequent campaigns being run to get us to start talking and break the taboo. But what’s the point of being aware of mental health if you can’t get the help you need?
We all know that the NHS is struggling, with scary statistics such as A&E departments facing record waiting times this year. All departments across the health service have faced budget cuts and patients of all ailments must be, well, patient. However, the waiting lists for mental health services appear to be disproportionately longer. The Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) have reports of up to 18 month waiting lists, as opposed to an illness like cancer, where referrals are generally a few weeks. Of course, cancer is a very serious illness and its waiting lists should be short; it is well understood by most people that if illnesses are left untreated they will get worse and ultimately become harder to manage. But why should mentally ill people be any different? What will happen in, say, an 18-month period to someone suffering with their mental health?
The short answer is that things will get worse. The long answer is something that is close to my heart, as someone who, like many, knows the system all too well.
After I was referred to CAMHS at the age of 14, I was warned about the waiting list. A local counselling service called Number 5 was suggested as an intermediary measure before I was able to start Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for depression and anxiety. Although this was 5 years ago, I remember feeling disheartened as months went by without any word from CAMHS. Even though I knew they wanted to help me, I couldn’t help but feel hopeless and forgotten about as I was left waiting for the professional help I needed. In fact, waiting has been a defining motif in my mental health story. I spent a lot of time between the ages of 14 and 16 in A&E having mental health crises, where I would have to wait hours for the on-call youth mental health team to come and speak to me. I soon learned that there were only a handful of people on this team for the entire county of Berkshire. Imagine if there were only one or two ambulances per county… sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?
I was lucky to only have to wait 5 months, although it’s worth noting that I was bumped up the waiting list following a particular incident, meaning I was originally due to wait longer. Unfortunately, by the time I started CBT, I was too deep into depression for it to be effective. I didn’t want to “challenge my negative thoughts” or make a flow chart of my anxiety; I wanted to die. As dark and brutal as that sounds, it needs to be said, because when it comes to mental health services it is people’s lives that are on the line. Just because it’s not a physical thing does not make it any less dangerous.
I was also lucky to have supportive family and friends; I cannot thank them enough for their love and kindness, especially my parents, who were by my side through every A&E trip, relapse, and dark day. However, not everyone will have that support network, and for those who do not, a long waiting list could be a nail in their coffin. An alarming number of people report anything from a deterioration in their mental health to attempting suicide whilst waiting for psychiatric care. Although I am no longer that scared and helpless 14-year-old, my experience with the mental health system as a child has made me reluctant to reach out for help as an adult. A jaded part of me wants to laugh at these campaigns that tell you to “just talk to your GP,” because I know that a painful wait will follow. The only immediate help a GP can offer is medication, which presents its own complications. As a child, medication was held off as a last resort, and I was closely monitored as I took fluoxetine for a year. As an adult, medication has been offered to myself and my friends as a first port of call. Of course, there shouldn’t be a stigma around taking medication for mental illness, but medication is not a simple fix. It can be difficult to find a type that works for you, and the side effects can exacerbate the problems. But when doctors are under pressure to help their patients and are aware of waiting lists for therapeutic treatments, what choice do they have?
It isn’t that the NHS don’t want to help mentally ill people – of course they do. Every healthcare worker I met on my journey, from triage nurses and school counsellors to therapists and psychiatrists, only wanted what was best for me. But with the best will in the world, without money and staff the NHS and other services have no choice but to ask patients to wait. A close friend of mine actually opted to go private for her therapy to avoid the agonising wait, and I completely understand why. By this time, even Number 5 had a waiting list, but she was in no position to wait.
So what can we do?
We cannot just decide to give up and not seek help just because we have a broken system. We need to be demanding the help we need, no matter how difficult the process is. We need to be there for each other and showing one another love and support. We need to be reaching out to our mentally ill friends and reminding them that they are loved. We need to be donating to mental health charities who work so hard to help people in their darkest times. But most importantly, we need to be pressuring the government to stop cutting mental health resources and to start taking the mental health epidemic seriously.
If you have been affected by anything in this article, please reach out to a trusted loved one and talk to your GP. A waiting list may be long, but the sooner you’re on one, the better. We can all survive the waiting list if we support one another.
If you would like to make a donation, charities such as Mind offer lots of different ways to support the work that they do. If you are in crisis and need to talk to someone, you can call Samaritans on 116 123.