How It Feels To Be On The NHS Mental Health Waiting List

Referrals for specialist NHS mental health services have reached an all time high.
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Adam Fare, 25 from South Cumbria, was on the mental health waiting list for 12 months before he got help and considers himself “lucky”. Previously, he had waited 18 months and ended up moving out of the area before he managed to get support.

Fare reached out for help as he felt that his quality of life was being significantly impacted by his mental health. “I wanted to find some support to help me manage my wellbeing and not just feel like I was surviving each day,” he says.

Fare’s story is not unusual. Referrals for specialist NHS mental health services have reached an all time high, according to new analysis by the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

The NHS had 4.3 million referrals for conditions such as anxiety and depression, in 2021, their analysis of NHS Digital data found. Nearly a quarter of those, 1.025 million, were for children and teenagers.

The two previous years saw 3.8 million referrals. Seeking mental health help has always been difficult, but now the pandemic has made it very unattainable.

While he was on the waiting list, Fare was full of uncertainty. “There was no contact from services during the wait, no check-in calls and no information about how I can do my best to manage during the waiting time,” he says. “It was really tough and I felt loss.”

Fare says his mental health worsened while being on the waiting list as it made him feel like his illness wasn’t bad enough for support.

“Which – especially with having an eating disorder – made me almost think I should get worse so I could then get the help I needed,” he says. “Without my family supporting me, I don’t think I would be sitting here writing this today.”

*Lucy, 22, who is an aesthetician from London, was on the waiting list for 16 weeks. “I was having anxiety so bad and I couldn’t afford to go private, I was desperate and it was more of a push from my uni,” she says.

She recalls feeling suicidal whilst waiting for help. “I was lucky enough to find the Black Minds Matter charity who helped me find a therapist in the meantime, I think if it wasn’t for that I definitely would have been sectioned,” she says.

“I have the help I need now and more resources and that’s partially because I’m back home and I have my mum to advocate for me and also because I have more money, so I have more options.”

*Kate, who is a 20-year old youth worker from the midlands, was in private therapy when the pandemic started. However due to lockdown, her earnings halved and she was unable to continue paying for it.

She turned to the NHS when things reached “make or break” last October and was provided medication after her first GP appointment. However, the referral process for counselling was long and arduous.

It took a month for anyone to contact Kate after her GP appointment, but she was unable to take the call.

“It’s a very long back and forth process, in which they give you about 10 days to contact them back, despite them taking as long as it takes,” she says.

“When I reached out for help I was in a really bad place and struggled with actually wanting help. So if I was unable to make that call back, it means it all starts again.”

Kate was re-referred by her GP in December and had an initial referral consultation, which covered everything she has already told her GP. Three months later, she has still not accessed NHS therapy and doesn’t know where she is on the waiting list.

Dr Adrian James, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, says the government needs to up its efforts to prevent cases like this.

“As the pressure on services continues to ratchet up, the silence from government continues to be of grave concern for the college, the wider mental health workforce and, most importantly, our patients,” he says.

HuffPost UK has contacted the Department of Health and Social Care for a response to the new data and issues raised by interviewees.

A spokesperson said: “Improving access to mental health services is a top priority. That’s 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.

“We will be launching a national conversation to inform the development of a new long term Mental Health Plan later this year. Mental health services are there for those who need them, so if you need support or are concerned about someone else, please reach out for help.”

An NHS spokesperson added: “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.”

The NHS may have been faced with unprecedented challenges in the past two years, but that doesn’t make life any easier for those who require support.

Kate says whilst being on the list she felt her mental health worsening, but found it quite conflicting. “I understand, on a bigger scale, that the NHS is heavily underfunded and under staffed,” she says. “However I told them I was suicidal in October and well, here we are...”

*Some names have been changed to provide anonymity

Help and support:

  • Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
  • Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).
  • CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) offer a helpline open 5pm-midnight, 365 days a year, on 0800 58 58 58, and a webchat service.
  • The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email
  • Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0808 801 0525 (Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on