Thousands of people were left waiting more than 3 months between mental health appointments across England last year, figures show.
The NHS talking therapy service treats patients for common mental health issues, including stress, anxiety, and depression.
Analysis of figures by the PA news agency’s RADAR service shows that in the year to November 2022, some 687,000 patients had a second appointment across England – but 154,0000 (22.5%) of these had to wait more than 90 days from their first one. The number and proportion has risen from the 12 months to November 2019, when 120,000 patients had to wait 3 months between first and second appointments – 19.2% of the total.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP) said delaying treatment could "put patients' wellbeing at risk".
Dr Adrian James, the RCP's president, said: "Some patients' mental health may deteriorate if left untreated, which can have a detrimental impact on their quality of life and have potentially life-altering consequences.
"There is also a danger that long waiting lists will undermine people’s faith in mental health services and discourage them from seeking the support they need."
He added staff are "working as hard as they can" but are struggling with limited resources and problems with staff retention and recruitment.
As of November, 104,000 patients referred to the talking therapies service were waiting for a first treatment.
Mental Health Services Facing 'Huge Pressures'
Mark Rowland, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, said the statistics should come as "no surprise" given the "huge pressures" mental health services are facing. He urged the Government to prioritise preventative approaches – focused on tackling mental health problems before professional help is needed.
Standards set by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) state that 75% of patients should get a first treatment within 6 weeks.
The proportion of patients seen within this time frame has improved over the past few years, even as the number of people using the service has increased. Figures show 89.6% of 1.2 million patients were seen within 6 weeks in the year to November 2022, up from 88% over the same period in 2018-19. However, this target was not being met in 17 of 110 former clinical commissioning group (CCG) areas across England.
An NHS spokesperson said: "The NHS is committed to increasing support for patients through its world-leading talking therapy services, and in November there were 60,000 more appointments completed compared to the previous month.
"The NHS is also increasing the number of trainee places for more people to join the workforce, so if you are struggling with your mental health, you can either refer yourself to your local NHS talking therapies service online or contact your GP."
The Department of Health and Social Care said it was already taking a preventative approach to tackling mental health issues and expanding access to the talking therapies service.
This article contains information from PA Media