‘I waited 16 months’: Mental health waitlists are at an all time high and students are suffering
‘I’m now three years behind on education’
NHS leaders and doctors have warned of a possible “second pandemic” of mental health issues if “dangerously long” waiting lists for care aren’t tackled immediately. The Covid crisis caused a sharp rise in the national levels of people experiencing mental health problems, and students are no exception.
Arguably, students are among those who have had it the toughest: far from a normal uni experience, students across the UK were sent home and then forced to pay rent for places they weren’t living in. They were blamed by politicians for spreading the virus, yet left completely alone and isolated from their families – some even at Christmas. Not to mention, that unemployment rates reached an all-time high and almost two-thirds of people who lost jobs in the UK pandemic were under 25.
Across the UK, 1.6 million people are currently on a waiting list for specialised mental health treatment, while an additional eight million who would benefit from support can’t even get onto a waiting list alone.
The Tab spoke to young people across the country who have experienced this first-hand. What we learnt? Something seriously needs to be done.
‘I waited 16 months just for them to tell me they couldn’t even see me anymore’
24-year old Hannah initially sought help with an eating disorder specialist when she was finishing up university in Newcastle. After waiting six months, she eventually managed to get a few appointments, but then the pandemic hit.
“I had to wait almost a year until they were able to continue my appointments online. They gave me six sessions and then sent me away. Apparently that’s all it takes to ‘get better’?”, Hannah said.
Hannah continued: “After that, I had to go back to my GP who referred me to a different service. They said it would be about a 12-month wait but I didn’t feel like I had a choice.”
Last week, after 16 months of waiting, this service finally contacted Hannah. She said: “They told me that they couldn’t actually see me anymore because I’d moved out of Newcastle (from when I was still at uni). They just told me to join a new waiting list for where I’m living in London and said good luck. That was it.”
Unsurprisingly, Hannah said the whole experience has made her feel completely “helpless”. She said: “I feel lucky that I wasn’t in a critical position but I can’t imagine others who would be. If they’re told to wait 16 months, they just may not be here in that long to finally get their appointment. Frankly, it’s just ridiculous.”
No one should have to fight for mental health support and yet, with this current situation, it feels as though it’s an on-going battle.
As Hannah pointed out, for some people, it’s not even the wait that’s the hardest part. “It took me about three years to finally get to a point where I felt ready to get help”, Hannah said. “Sometimes reaching out is the hardest part – but when you’ve got this on top of everything, it just feels like getting help is an impossible task.
“It’s never felt like a government priority and at this point, unless you have the means to go private, you have no choice. It’s unacceptable.”
‘My uni hasn’t helped and don’t seem to care’
Many students’ first port of call is their university when they feel like they need support. This was the case for Annabel, who made her mental health issues known to her university during her first week of joining.
“I found that they were interested in contacting me at the start of uni as they were aware of my condition. After that – I never heard from them again”, Annabel said.
“My university (Manchester) offered things like meditation and well-being drop-ins on zoom but, as I’ve discussed with my personal tutor, I just don’t feel comfortable going into an open call with staff and students talking about my issues.”
Consequently, Annabel decided to go through her GP for help – although she claims it’s been a “long and difficult” process, without having the “ability” to go private.
She told The Tab: “I feel as though the uni hasn’t really helped and doesn’t really seem to care. I think universities should be doing more to look after their students.”
A University of Manchester spokesperson said: “We aim to offer high quality support to our students when they need it. We provide a wide range of support across the full range of student needs from well-being to formal mental health support. We don’t have a waiting list for our counselling and mental health provision. More information on the services is available at the following link – http://www.dso.manchester.ac.uk/what-support-can-i-get/mental-health-support/”
‘I was so close to giving up’
Fi went to her GP in March last year after suffering with severe anxiety. She explained to her GP that she was concerned she was suffering with a particular disorder, but after a five minute consultation, the doctor ruled this out and referred her to a well-being specialist.
She told The Tab: “I waited to speak to well-being for I think five months. I had the assessment with them and they were basically like ‘no you’re fucked, you should be being assessed by psychological therapies’.
“I was so close to giving up because I’d waited so long. I then had to wait another two months to be assessed and after another few months I was finally assigned a therapist. And then across a few weeks she seemed to get frustrated that I didn’t just have one disorder for her to do CBT with and said CBT wasn’t going to work for me. In the end I just stopped attending appointments because we never got onto treating me, just constantly going through thought behaviour action cycles on experiences I’d had that week.”
‘It was impacting my entire life’
Tilly reached out to her university (Manchester Met) for support after her father died. She told The Tab: “I sought help from the MMU well-being team for counselling. I was dealing with flashbacks and PTSD symptoms as well as depression and suicidal thoughts, which was obviously impacting my entire life and my ability to do uni work.
“When I finally got my initial assessment they told me I would have to wait at least a year to see someone for therapy via the uni, at which point I decided to get help through the NHS. It took about three months to get an initial assessment.
“I had my first assessment and they deemed my needs as severe, so I got help quite fast and was having CBT for a couple of months. The therapist then decided that my needs were too complex for her, and referred me to see a psychiatrist which took an additional four months.”
After Tilly’s psychiatrist assessment, she was advised that the treatment she underwent was “completely wrong” for her needs and “likely made things worse” and which point she was referred yet again.
Five months have passed and Tilly is yet to hear back from the NHS. She said: “when I call and chase up, they just tell me to keep waiting for a letter. I’ve had to deal with my issues with absolutely zero help.”
A Manchester Metropolitan University spokesman replied to The Tab’s request for comment and said: “The wellbeing of our students is always our top priority. Without understanding the full context of the individual case outlined, it would be difficult to comment further, but any student with concerns about the support offered is encouraged to contact the service who will look into it further.
“Our Counselling, Mental Health and Wellbeing team is available to provide professional mental health support for any student who contacts the service, which can be accessed in person, online or by phone. We operate a duty system to ensure that urgent issues are prioritised and responded to on the same day. Waiting times for all services are kept to an absolute minimum with additional measures available to help students who feel unable to wait for an appointment so they can access one-to-one counselling as a priority. Those without urgent issues will be seen within a week on average by professionally trained counsellors for an initial assessment.
“The support that each student requires will be then assessed and allocated by our counsellors based on individual needs, and students with complex mental health needs may also be referred directly from our Counselling, Mental Health and Wellbeing team into the Greater Manchester Universities NHS Student Mental Health Service, home-based treatment teams or other appropriate NHS Services.”
‘Early intervention is key – not a three to six-month waiting list’
Ciana had her first interaction with mental health services when she was 16 and suffering from anorexia.
She told The Tab: “When I finished my GCSEs I was taken to the doctors by my mum. My body was physically struggling but I had to wait eight weeks for a follow-up appointment. In that time I deteriorated a lot.”
After eight weeks, Ciana became so unwell that by the time she finally had her follow-up appointment she was taken out of school and placed in a live-in facility unit.
Ciana said: “The physical side was easier to fix, but because I had been left with no support at all that whole summer, my mental health became so warped. I’m now three years behind on education because I never got early intervention and had to wait that long to be seen.
“The incapability of support from the NHS left me with no trust and after being told I had no choice but to wait to be seen by the service, I was only ever invalidated by the time I finally did get seen.
“Because I had to wait so long, I have osteopenia (low bone density) in my spine and hips. My fertility is damaged now as I don’t get periods and I fully believe that had I got early intervention and the right support from the NHS eating disorder services, then I would be graduated by now. I’m at uni right now and doing a lot better than I was but my physical health (heart, bloods and bones) still face trouble today. It really shouldn’t be that way for anyone. Early intervention is key, not a three to six month waiting list.”
‘It was agony – knowing that without the wait, someone could solve the issues ruining my life’
Hannah* has been dealing with physical symptoms of mental health issues for the past two years.
“I reached out to mental health services as a last resort to see if they could help. Between my first consultation – where they said my physical symptoms could be a manifestation of mental health issues – I waited six months before my first session.
“This was agony, knowing someone could solve the issues ruining my day-to-day life, but dealing with them every day whilst at the back of a waiting list. So many times along the way, I debated withdrawing myself. I just think, it’s hard enough for someone to reach out for help, having to wait so long for a treatment they’re potentially reluctant about is an extra punch in the gut.”
If you or someone you know has been affected by this story, please speak to someone or contact Samaritans on 116 123 at any time. You can also contact Anxiety UK on 03444 775 774, Mind on 0300 123 3393, and Calm (Campaign against living miserably, for men aged 15 to 35) on 0800 58 58 58. You matter.