The shocking figure comes as the emergency service is facing unprecedented demand year-round for its services.
Ambulance crews facing huge demand
Ambulance crews in England are spending 1.8m hours a year, the equivalent of 75,000 days, as they deal with patients with mental health problems, new NHS figures have revealed.
Critics of the NHS say that the data showed that a lack of help for people experiencing mental ill health was adding to the strain on the hard-pressed ambulance service.
Other figures show that the number of 999 calls ambulance services get involving mental health issues is rising every year. England’s ten regional ambulance services received 524,485 such 999 calls in 2018-19. That number increased to 652,720 in 2021-22 – a rise of 24%.
Analyzing the figures, Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, speaking to The Guardian, said,
“These alarming figures are indicative of public services being run down by successive Conservative governments. With long waiting lists for mental health support, it comes as no surprise that increasing numbers of people are reaching out to 999 in crisis.”
A service under pressure
The National Audit Office reported in February that 1.2 million people were waiting to receive care and treatment from NHS community mental health services.
Meanwhile, ambulance services are under such pressure that people in a mental health crisis are enduring waits of almost two and a half hours before a crew turns up to help them.
Separate research by the Liberal Democrats political party in the UK shows that the East of England and South West ambulance services are taking on average two hours and 20 minutes to respond to 999 calls where someone is undergoing a mental health emergency.
Daisy Cooper, the Liberal Democrat health spokesperson, described such long delays were “staggering.”
“It is shocking that people experiencing mental health crises are having to wait hours for an ambulance to arrive. It shows that mental health patients are being catastrophically let down by this Conservative government, which is running our NHS into the ground. We know that time is often critical in a mental health crisis and every minute counts.”
A senior source in the ambulance service, speaking to The Guardian on condition of anonymity, stressed that mental health emergencies often take longer than ones involving physical health to resolve. They said,
“Mental health incidents do take a lot of time because they are often complex cases. Accessing crisis care can take a long time too and handover delays with mental health patients are possibly even longer than for patients with physical conditions.”
The increase in mental health calls to 999 in recent years was also partly down to ambulance services better identifying such calls when they were triaged, they added.
Many ambulance services have set up specialist teams to help them cope with the rise in mental health calls, which began before Covid-19’s arrival in 2020 accelerated the trend.
For example, the London Ambulance Service (LAS) operates six mental health joint response cars, in which a paramedic and mental health professional respond to calls involving depression, suicide attempts, psychosis, and other sorts of psychiatric crises.
The staff assesses the patient’s mental and physical health needs, only taking them to A&E if they need immediate treatment there, and arranging for them to receive help, ideally while still at home, for whatever problems they have, including from NHS mental health services.
The cars have so far helped 17,000 people in distress and take just 16% of patients to an emergency department – far below the 50% seen when standard ambulance crews assess mental health patients – the London Ambulance Service said.
What are your thoughts on this news? How might ambulance services be improved to handle mental health callouts? Let us know in the comments.