Professional Comment

Tackling the Mental Healthcare Crisis

By Ross Harper, CEO and Founder of Limbic (

While our healthcare resources are being diverted to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, we have another health crisis that needs to be addressed: mental illness

According to the World Health Organisation, mental illness is the largest cause of disability in the UK. One in four adults experience a mental health problem each year*, which costs our healthcare system £105 billion annually.

The pandemic has accelerated the need for faster access to mental healthcare. COVID-19 has resulted in a parallel outbreak of anxiety and depression, which the Royal College of Psychiatrists* has, rather alarmingly, described as a ‘tsunami of mental illness.’

It’s unsurprising then, that demand for talk therapy has spiked in the last twelve months. Last year, 1.17 million people entered treatment for talk therapy through the NHS’ Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) services.

A global pandemic compounded with living in prolonged isolation and a diversion of our healthcare resources means we’re already play- ing catch up. Not only do we have new patients flowing into the system that need support, but we also have a backlog of patients that need to be helped as well. In fact, patient referrals to IAPT services are expected to triple.

However, when it comes to mental healthcare, the UK has a supply and demand issue. Demand for talk therapy is at an all-time high. And yet, more than one in ten mental health posts are vacant in the UK and 2000 mental health staff quit their jobs every month. Service capacities are unlikely to increase anytime soon.

Unquestionably, digital health must play a role in alleviating the pressure on our healthcare system, providing mental health support to those who need it urgently and driving equality of service access across the UK.

A particular pinch point is around clinical assessments: a resource-heavy process in IAPT services. Approximately 25% of the total IAPT budget is taken up by clinical assessments. Typically, assessments are completed by an IAPT therapist and involve a 1 hour phone call to screen the patient for service eligibility, collect basic patient information, assess risk and point them towards the most appropriate care pathway.

By automating elements of this process, not only can we reduce the six week waiting time that patients face for a clinical assessment, but we can also free up clinician time as well. In fact, pilot data from our own Limbic Access triage tool – which augments clinical assessments within IAPT services – showed that clinicians saved 20 minutes of time per referral through digital support. This has a knock-on effect; freeing up staff time can save on temporary staff costs and can arguably also help to reduce clinician burnout (and subsequently, clinician turnover rates).

Perhaps most importantly, the resulting efficiency means that patients get forwarded to the most appropriate care pathways as quickly as possible and can move onto treatment quicker too. Not only does this improve the overall patient experience, but crucially, faster time to treatment is known to improve patient recovery rates.

Clinical assessments are not the only part of the care pathway that can be streamlined through digital innovation. We need to embrace technology as soon as possible to meet the supply and demand issue in mental healthcare and ensure that everyone has access to the right support when they need it. Together, we can tackle this crisis.