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Psychiatrist shortage could have 'grave consequences' for mental health care, doctors warn

  • Video report by ITV News Correspondent Sejal Karia

A shortage of psychiatrists is forcing seriously ill children to endure long waits for mental health care, specialists have warned.

Unfilled consultant psychiatrist posts across the UK have doubled in six years, according to a new survey by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, with children's mental health and eating disorder services particularly affected.

The shortfall comes at a time of soaring demand for mental health care, raising fears that patients will continue to face potentially life-threatening delays to treatment.

Ministers have pledged billions to transform mental health care and provide parity with physical care.

But the profession has warned that the ambitious plans are destined for failure unless the major shortages are addressed and the recruitment and retention of staff is prioritised.

"I've heard harrowing tales of people waiting longer than they should and their conditions getting worse - we've heard stories of people losing their lives," Dr Kate Lovett, from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said.

"The consequences are grave."

1 in 10
consultant posts in England are unfilled, up from one in 20 in 2013 - Royal College of Psychiatrists
35%
the percentage of children with mental illness receive suitable treatment
£2.3bn
the government pledge per year to improve care by 2023-2024

Sarah Lechmere, who is anorexic with a history of self-harm, told ITV News that by the time she received appropriate care, nurses warned her mother that they did not expect her to live through the weekend due to her rapidly deteriorating health.

"All I wanted was to have the help but it felt like if I was going to receive help I needed to make myself worse than I was," she said.

"I almost wanted my mental health to deteriorate to the point when someone would step in because that's how if feels. It feels like the only point you get the help is when you're at crisis."

Natalie Ashburner, a trainee psychiatrist, revealed that she is seeing an unprecedented number of people arriving at A&E in crisis because of a lack of available support.

Children's services are particularly affected by the increasing gaps.

Shortages also, she believes, have an impact on frontline staff, potentially driving more out of the health service.

"When we have gaps, it means that there are higher workloads for the doctors that are still there working; their case loads are increasing - it is very stressful," she said.

"It leads to more doctors wanting to take time out or leaving themselves, which leaves us in an even worse position."

Responding to the new findings, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Expanding the mental health workforce is a key priority.

"We know more work is needed to meet rising demand on services and to ensure patients are getting the best treatment.”