Call for urgent action after 38,000 follow-up sessions with ‘at-risk’ mental health patients missed

Nearly 38,000 vital follow-up appointments with mental health patients were missed at the time at which they were most at risk of suicide, the Royal College of Psychiatrists has said.

The medical body has called for “urgent action” to ensure more people are seen for follow-ups within 72 hours of their discharge from inpatient care, to prevent them falling “through the cracks when they are so vulnerable”.

The risk of suicide is highest on the second and third days after leaving a mental health ward, but 37,999 follow-up appointments with patients were not made within this timeframe in England between April 2020 and May 2022.

According to NHS data, only three-quarters (76%) took place within that period of the 160,430 instances when patients were eligible for follow-up care within 72 hours after discharge from acute adult mental health care.

A target of at least 80% of people being followed up within this timeframe was introduced in the year 2019-2020, however, this has never been achieved.

The latest data from the Office for National Statistics said 4,912 suicides were registered in 2020 in England, with the male suicide rate at 15.3 per 100,000 and the rate among women at 4.9.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists is calling for more trained specialists to check on those perceived to be at risk, which they say requires more staffing and funding.

The president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Dr Adrian James, said: “We simply can’t afford to let people fall through the cracks at a time when they are so vulnerable.

“It’s vital that our mental health services are properly staffed and funded to offer proper follow-up care and help prevent suicides.

“Staff are working as hard as they can to provide high-quality care but it’s clear that current resources are not enough to meet these targets. We need urgent action to tackle the workforce crisis and achieve the suicide prevention goals set out in the NHS Long Term Plan.”

The appointments should take place face to face with specialist staff either at the patient’s home or at a follow-on care setting for assessment.

An NHS spokesperson said: “NHS mental health services are treating more people than ever before, whether it be for talking therapies, eating disorders or people with a severe mental illness getting care in the community.

“The NHS set an ambitious target for 72-hour follow-up appointments, which was previously seven days – this is in addition to a range of support in place, including 24/7 crisis telephone lines across the country – and so anyone struggling with their mental health should come forward and get the support they need.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are improving mental health services which will see over £2.3 billion of additional funding a year by 2024 – enabling an extra two million people across England to get help.

“Improving mental health is a key part of our commitment to level up unequal outcomes and life chances across the country. Earlier this year we launched a call for evidence to better understand what government can do in the longer term to support mental health, wellbeing and suicide prevention.”

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