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Staff shortages leaving mental health nurses ‘near breaking point’, survey finds

A ‘dire shortage’ of mental health professionals including nurses is leaving staff ‘near breaking point’ and patients without the care they need, according to a survey published today by the British Medical Association (BMA).  

The survey of more than 1,000 mental health professionals, run in collaboration with the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and the Association of Clinical Psychologists, found 52% of respondents said they were too busy to provide the care they would like.  

Of the 390 nurses respondents, over half (65%) said that on their last shift or day worked, there was a shortage of one or more nursing staff.  

Concerns over staff numbers were revealed across staff groups with 63% of respondents saying they work in a healthcare setting with rota gaps across the team.  

Meanwhile, more than two in five (44%) surveyed said they felt demoralised and the same number said their workload is unmanageable.  

The 1,036 mental health professionals who took part in the survey also included 334 doctors, 281 clinical psychologists and 31 other health professionals.  

Commitments ‘not on track’  

The BMA went on to warn that improvements laid out in the mental health implementation plan, published in July 2019, are ‘at risk of being unachievable’ as demand increases and services decline.  

These include planned increases of around 600 psychiatrists, 4,000 nurses, 8,000 psychologists, psychotherapists and psychological professionals, 5,000 support workers and 600 social workers. 

Likewise, the BMA highlighted that past commitments ‘are not on track to be met’, such as those set out in NHS England’s Five Year Forward View for Mental Health and Health Education England’s Stepping forward to 2020/21: A mental health workforce plan for England

The mental healthcare workforce has had little growth since 2009 with many key staff groups either remaining at a similar level or declining, the BMA report found.  

The is despite patient contacts with mental health services increasing by 238,000 in the last two years alone. 

Over the past decade, there has been a loss of 7,000 nurses, health visitors and midwives working in the field. However, recent years have seen a slight boost with about 2,000 more nursing staff now than in 2016. 

The Department of Health and Social Care has insisted the mental health workforce is a ‘key priority’ for the Government  

'Urgent investment’ needed  

The work forms part of the BMA’s ‘Beyond party of esteem’ report, which found mental health services ‘remain a long way behind’ most physical health services in terms of resourcing, access to care and most patient outcomes. 

It warned that mental health services continue to suffer from inadequate funding and staffing despite renewed policy focus in recent years.  

Its recommendations included doubling CCG spending on mental health over the next decade alongside urgent action to address the workforce crisis such as targeted recruitment campaigns.  

Responding to the reports, the RCN professional lead for mental health Catherine Gamble said parity of esteem for physical and mental health services is ‘yet to be realised’.  

She continued: ‘Shifts are consistently one or more staff members down leaving the rest upset that they can’t provide the care patients deserve and worried that lives could be put at risk if this continues.  

‘With so many too busy to deliver care, nurses aren’t able to spend time with families, develop therapeutic relationships and implement psychosocial interventions’ 

‘Unless there is urgent investment in growing the nursing workforce, the pressures will continue to grow to the point where it will no longer be possible to attract nurses to work in the NHS.’ 

BMA mental health policy lead Dr Andrew Molodynski said mental healthcare workforce is ‘near to breaking point’. 

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: ‘Expanding the mental health workforce is a key priority for this Government so we meet rising demand on services and ensure patients receive the best treatment. 

‘From September this year, we’re giving all nursing and midwifery students at least £5,000 a year and we’re taking immediate action to fill vacancies and secure the staff we need – including increasing university clinical placements by over 5,000 more and bolstering the workforce through greater international recruitment.’