Almost 30 per cent of people undergoing psychological therapy in Blackpool are waiting longer than three months between treatment appointments, according to NHS figures.
Mental health campaigners say that this is too long to wait – and guidelines advise that psychological therapies should be delivered on a weekly or fortnightly basis.
But every single patient in May waited fewer than six weeks for their first appointment – well above the national target of 75 per cent.
While there is no target for second appointments, mental health charity Mind said the number of people waiting months between sessions was “worrying”.
It comes after The Gazette reported yesterday how mental health teams across Lancashire are struggling under twice the level of demand seen in other areas.
Figures show that in May around 35 of the 125 people who had a second treatment session in the Blackpool Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) area waited more than three months between appointments - a rate of 28 per cent.
Around 100 people waited more than a month between appointments – 80 per cent of the total.
As part of its Improved Access to Psychological Therapy (IAPT) programme, NHS targets state that 75 per cent of service users should have their first treatment appointment within six weeks of referral, and 95 per cent within 18 weeks – there is no target for second appointments.
Dr Neil Hartley-Smith, a Blackpool GP and Clinical Advisor for NHS Blackpool CCG said: “We have worked hard to improve the access to psychological therapies and have seen some real improvements with 100 per cent of people waiting less than six weeks for their first appointment. At the first appointment the patient is assessed based on their need and anyone at risk is seen as soon as possible. Others may have to wait longer.
“Obviously, although this is working well this is not ideal and we are continuing to work with providers of mental health services to improve the patient experience.”
In Blackpool, all of the 270 people having their first appointment in May waited less than six weeks. By these measures, the Blackpool CCG has an outstanding performance record.
Mind’s senior policy and campaigns officer Emily Waller said: “Because of the targets, all the emphasis is on the wait for the first appointment, and not on the subsequent appointments.
“These figures highlight the fact that some talking therapies aren’t being delivered in the best way possible.
“Although targets for accessing the first appointment are being met, this data shows there are still long waits between sessions in parts of the country.
“This makes it more likely for people using the service to become more unwell, or disengage with the service altogether.”
The IAPT programme aims to improve the delivery of therapy services across a range of conditions, including depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress.
Guidelines state that it is not good practice to delay a course of treatment for an extended period of time after the initial appointment. The manual says that “services should guard against hidden waits within a course of treatment.”
Ms Waller added: “It’s really important to make sure that once people enter into treatment, that treatment is regular and consistent.”
An NHS England spokesman said that the agreed waiting time targets for referral to first treatment have been met. Nationally, 90 per cent of people waited fewer than six weeks to start treatment, and 99 per cent of people had a wait of under 18 weeks.
Mind has said that the targets set by the NHS are not ambitious enough, and has called for people to be seen within 28 days, instead of six weeks.
The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) expressed concerns that the IAPT workforce has not been sufficiently expanded to deal with the demand for the service.
A BACP spokesman said: “It is vital that talking therapies are available as and when they are required. The right support at the right time can improve long term effects on self esteem and reduce the chance of continued mental health issues.”
A spokesman for Lancashire Care NHS Foundation Trust, which provides mental health care across the county, said: “We are working hard to ensure that people needing access to psychological therapy are seen as quickly as possible.”
The cost of sending patients out of the county
Lancashire’s mental health trust has spent millions of pounds sending patients up to hundreds of miles away for treatment when there were no beds for them locally.
Figures from the NHS show that between June 2017 and May 2018, the Lancashire Care NHS Foundation Trust placed patients with acute mental health needs in inappropriate Out of Area Placements on approximately 245 occasions.
The mental health charity Mind says the impact of being far away from home on a patient’s mental health “cannot be overstated” and could even increase the risk of suicide.
Some of the patients sent away by the Lancashire Care NHS Foundation Trust had to travel more than 180 miles to places as far as Sussex, Darlington and Bristol.
The trust racked up a bill of around £4,790,000 over the 12 months to May paying for the care of patients on inappropriate placements, including the cost of additional ongoing placements that began prior to June 2017.
In May, the majority of the facilities that received patients from the trust were privately operated.