Breaking Point: The Unseen Toll of the Cost-of-Living Crisis on NHS Therapy Services
15 December 2023

By Renna Mubarak-Drayner

The United Kingdom is on the brink of a mental health crisis, with the cost-of-living crisis exacerbating the already strained capacity of NHS therapy services. A warning from the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) sheds light on the grim reality: the demand for mental health services is surging, while the workforce remains insufficient. This dire situation could lead to prolonged waiting times, reduced therapy sessions, and a strain on the mental well-being of individuals across the nation. 

Shortfall in NHS Therapy Services 

The UKCP has raised a red flag, emphasising that the NHS therapy services are already grappling with capacity issues, and the looming cost of living crisis threatens to worsen the situation. According to sources, there is a shortage of thousands of therapists, rendering the NHS ill-equipped to handle the increased demand. Shockingly, NHS counselling services in England are falling short of therapy access targets by a staggering 2,000 workers, creating a significant gap in mental health support. 

Impact of Cost-of-Living Crisis on Mental Health 

A recent poll conducted by the UKCP and YouGov underscores the profound impact of the cost-of-living crisis on mental health. Nearly half of adults in the survey expressed that the cost-of-living crisis was affecting their mental well-being. The age group most affected, 25 to 34 years old, highlights the urgency of addressing the crisis to safeguard the mental health of the younger generation. 

Adam Jones, the policy and public affairs manager for the UKCP, expressed deep concern over the unprecedented demand for mental health services. With an already stretched capacity, the rising demand poses significant challenges, including increased waiting times and a decrease in the average number of therapy sessions received. Jones also warned that the NHS, while focused on training new therapists, must also tap into the existing workforce of psychotherapists and counsellors who are not currently part of the NHS system. 

Challenges in IAPT Services 

The latest data for NHS talking therapy services (IAPT) reveals a stark reality. In the 2021-22 period, 1.8 million people were referred for treatment, yet only 1.2 million started it. This discrepancy emphasises the existing gaps in mental health service delivery and the urgent need for a comprehensive and timely response. 

Expert Perspectives 

Professor Sarah Niblock, Chief Executive of UKCP, issued a stern warning about the far-reaching consequences of the cost-of-living crisis. She emphasised that the crisis extends beyond financial struggles, directly impacting anxiety levels, including the anxiety of our children. Dr. Syed Azmatullah, a psychotherapist from UKCP, expressed his concern about the profound impact of the cost-of-living crisis on both wallets and mental well-being. 

As the nation grapples with the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis emerges as the next formidable challenge. Urgent action is needed to bolster the capacity of NHS therapy services, tap into the existing pool of skilled professionals, and address the mental health implications of the cost-of-living crisis. The well-being of individuals and the resilience of the nation’s mental health hinge on a prompt and comprehensive response to this pressing issue. 

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