'It's distressing': Mental health patients twice as likely to wait 12 hours in A&E

Words by ITV News Health Correspondent Rebecca Barry and Health and Science Producer Philip Sime

Patients suffering a mental health crisis in England are twice as likely to wait more than 12 hours in A&E, ITV News can reveal.

Figures obtained by the Royal College of Emergency Medicine and shared exclusively with ITV News show mental health patients are disproportionately impacted by A&E delays, with one-in-four mental health patients had long waits in 2023, compared to one-in-ten of all other patients.

While prolonged waits for all patients decreased slightly, the proportion of mental health patients waiting 12 hours to be admitted surged to an all time high of 23%.

In 2019, just 7% of mental health patients waited that long.

Emma Powell has schizoaffective disorder. Last year, while suffering a mental health crisis, she attended A&E and waited 87 hours, or three-and-a-half days, for treatment.

"It's distressing," Ms Powell told ITV News. "It's not a place that's designed for you to be in for a long period of time."

"I found it really difficult being in there. It took 11 hours before I was given a trolley to lie on and would be just lying on the floor in the waiting room. It's not a situation or environment that's conducive to healing or getting better," she added.

Emma Powell described her experience waiting almost four days in A&E as "distressing". Credit: ITV News

The frustration extends beyond patients and onto the staff in the emergency departments as well.

"You just do feel so, so helpless," said Kath O'Hagan, Matron at the Royal Berkshire Hospital's Emergency Department.

"It's the fact that we know we're not doing the best for our patients and that's really, really hard.

"We just try to be kind and supportive and all of those things you try to do when someone is in distress but what we can't do is offer the actual mental health care."

But some Trusts have set up spaces which are dedicated to emergency mental health treatment.

At Lincoln County Hospital, a new Mental Health Urgent Assessment Centre receives around 50 patients every week, all of whom would have previously attended A&E.

Amy, who lives with a personality disorder, PTSD and psychosis, says the service has been life changing.

"They've all made me get to a point in my life where I can go out and start earning money and just become more self-sufficient," she told ITV News.

Leading figures in emergency medicine say the situation is "shameful".

"People who come to A&E when experiencing mental health crises or extreme mental ill heath are among the most vulnerable patients we see," Dr Adrian Boyle, President of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said.

"This data shows so starkly how badly they are being let down by a fragmented system and the shameful waits they are enduring. It is simply unacceptable."

Victoria Atkins, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, said: "Of course we apologise to everyone who waits for longer than we would want in A&E."

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: "We have increased overall mental health funding by £4.7 billion since 2018 and are investing £150 million in mental health urgent and emergency care infrastructure, including alternative options to A&E and inpatient care to help improve patients’ experience and ease the pressure on emergency departments and ambulance services.

"We are working with NHS England to reduce the waits of mental health patients in A&E, including the availability of Approved Mental Health Professionals to speed up assessments.

"In addition, we are supporting the NHS to deliver the highest standard of care possible and ensure people get the emergency care they need. Our Urgent and Emergency Care Recovery Plan has already added an extra 5,000 hospital beds, while A&E four-hour performance improved in February compared to January."

A spokesperson for NHS England said: "While we recognise there is more to do, all emergency department services now offer 24/7 access to a mental health liaison service or local crisis support with 92% of these provided by an on-site liaison service, up from 66% in 2018.

"The NHS has also set up 24/7 mental health crisis lines across England which receive up to 200,000 calls a month, with only a fraction of people then going needing further support in A&E."

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know...