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Karen Steadman
Senior Researcher
Karen Steadman

Steps to reduce waiting times for mental health treatment welcomed – but is it enough?

Authors: Karen Steadman

08 October 2014

Fantastic to see the policy announcement from Nick Clegg this morning that waiting time targets will be set for mental health treatment. From April 2015, most patients needing talking therapies will be guaranteed the treatment they need with a maximum wait of 18 weeks (and hopefully in as little as six weeks).

If we take heed of the old adage – you measure what you value – then it seems like mental health treatment is finally getting the attention it deserves. At last we see some active steps beginning to be made towards the much vaunted (and much less implemented) goal of achieving parity of esteem with physical health services.

This is not just for common mental health conditions, which are estimated to affect 1 in 4 people every year, but also for those with more rare, yet severe conditions – with the promise that patients experiencing their first episode of psychosis will enter into treatment within two weeks of referral. Our report last year on schizophrenia and employment highlighted the crucial role of early intervention in psychosis services in supporting individuals to recover – in terms of recovering from clinical symptoms, but also in terms of recovering life, particularly in regards to social exclusion, and employment.

It is the transition from poor mental health, to treatment to employment which raises some concern. As signalled by the recent CMO report, the OECD report and others, employment is an important outcome for those with mental health conditions with implications for individual recovery, for employers, and for the broader economy.
This raises the question as to whether accessing treatment within 18 weeks will be enough to improve employment outcomes? It is four weeks not four months, of sickness absence which had been identified as the trigger point for health-related sickness absence turning into long-term absence from the labour market. This is the premise underlying the Health and Work Service – roll out of which is due to commence by the end of the year. What will be the effect of referring people to the Service, after a four week absence, only to then put them on a waiting list for a possible four months longer?

This announcement should be fully supported – it represents a crucial step in ensuring better support, treatment, and recognition for those experiencing mental health problems. What will also be important though is monitoring the effect of these targets on various health and social outcomes, and employment particularly (a current goal of psychological therapy provision), will have to be closely monitored.