Psychological professionals in the United Kingdom have faced a lack of access to specialist mental health services in recent years, but a survey released today suggests that some are struggling with the challenge.
The study, which polled about 2,500 psychologists, psychologists assistants, therapists and allied health professionals in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, found that the majority of psychologists said they were struggling to find a specialist mental illness treatment in the country.
Many reported having a difficult time finding specialists who would take on the work of their clients, while others felt their own skills were not up to scratch.
Psychologists and psychiatrists were particularly keen to point out that mental health professionals needed help, with about one in five psychologists saying they were unable to work on a mental health issue.
One in five said that they were being told by the local NHS to ‘stop trying’ and ‘focus on getting people out of the hospital’.
Psychologists’ concerns about the mental health system are largely linked to the rise in the number of patients referred to specialist care services in the past two decades.
The number of people referred to mental health care increased by a third between 2009 and 2020, to a total of more than 5.4 million, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
However, this rise has been accompanied by a decline in the numbers of psychologists working in this field.
This was partly driven by the increase in the use of psychotherapists in the NHS, but also by the decline in referrals to specialist facilities such as hospitals and prisons.
However, psychologists and psychiatrists also reported difficulty finding suitable mental health facilities.
Only one in four respondents to the survey said they had seen a psychologist or psychiatrist during a visit to a GP clinic, compared to two in five in 2014 and two in three in 2016.
In a recent study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, a team of researchers from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) compared how psychologists and psychiatry practitioners across the United States treated patients with anxiety disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety disorders in their care.
The researchers found that mental illness diagnoses are often misdiagnosed and incorrectly linked to psychiatric disorders.
For example, when patients with depression or anxiety were referred to a psychologist for treatment, they were often given an anxiety disorder diagnosis, despite there being no psychiatric disorder.
Similarly, when people with depression, anxiety or PTSD were referred by a psychiatrist to a specialist for treatment they were likely to receive an anxiety or depression diagnosis.
“There is a tendency for doctors to focus on the symptoms and not really the underlying problems in people’s lives, but it’s a very common mistake,” said lead author Dr Terence McGovern, from UCSF’s School of Public Health and Social Work.
“We’re talking about people who might have been diagnosed with depression and anxiety in their childhood, but were not in the mental state to take care of themselves.”
The researchers also found that doctors often gave psychiatric diagnoses for conditions that did not require treatment.
In the case of anxiety disorders and post-trauma stress disorder, the majority (57 per cent) of doctors said they gave psychiatric diagnosis to a person who was not ill, with the majority giving it to someone who was in the final stages of recovery.
“It’s the worst mistake doctors make,” McGovern told the Irish Independent.
“They can say they are treating a mental illness and they can’t actually see any underlying issues.”
In a statement, the NHS said it was “working hard to make the mental illness diagnosis more accurate and useful for people with mental health needs and it is a key part of the NHS’s strategy to improve care for people in our care.”
“There are many things we do to support people with specific mental health conditions, but we also need to take mental health more seriously,” said Dr Joanna Kelly, a GP at St Thomas’ Hospital in London.
“Psychologists have been around for a long time and we do care about them.
But it is important for them to realise that it is not just about what they do, it is also about what people in their mental health have to do to get better.”
Psychologists have long been known to play an important role in the care of the elderly.
In 2006, the British Medical Journal estimated that over 80 per cent of all GP practices were dedicated to mental healthcare.
But according to research carried out by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, only about one third of all primary care services are devoted to mental illness, and less than one third are allocated to psychiatric patients.
A study published in January 2016 found that only one in six psychiatrists was trained in a specialist field, while another found that almost half of psychiatrists had not attended a primary mental health clinic for at least 20 years.
“The NHS has a huge need for specialists in mental health, and this survey indicates that many people with a mental disorder don’t know what they are missing out on,”