Care services for people with emergency mental health problems are “under-resourced, understaffed and overstretched”, a charity has warned.
Crisis care teams, which support those suffering from mental health crises including suicidal behaviours and psychotic episodes, vary greatly across the country, according to mental health charity Mind.
The charity, which made Freedom of Information requests to all mental health trusts in England and local health boards in Wales, said four in 10 have staffing levels well below established benchmarks.
It also said that many patients are not getting the help they need. The organisation found a huge variation in the number of people being referred to crisis teams by GPs, hospital doctors, other mental health teams and the police.
In some areas of England and Wales as few as 42 per 10,000 people are referred on, while in other areas the figure stands at 430 per 10,000.
“This reinforces what people tell us that in some areas they are simply not getting through the door,” the charity said.
Interviews conducted on 1,000 people who had experienced a mental health crisis in the last five years found that only 14% of patients felt they had all the support they needed in an emergency.
In addition, research from University College London found that only one in 10 crisis teams in England do not operate 24-hour, seven-day-a-week services.
Paul Farmer, chief executive of the charity, said: “We are deeply concerned that some crisis care services appear to be struggling to support people with mental health problems when they need help the most.
“We know that excellent crisis care exists, but we need it available to everyone, regardless of where they live.
“Good services can make a huge difference to whether someone recovers from the crisis, yet Mind often hears from people who have been turned away because they ‘aren’t suicidal enough’ or who have been made to wait around for hours just to be seen by someone who can help them. An emergency is an emergency.”
The NHS Mandate, launched earlier this month, said that mental health illnesses should be treated on a par with physical illnesses.
Mr Farmer said that as the NHS reforms take shape there is a “real opportunity” to ensure good quality crisis care services are in place.
Mind has collaborated the results from the three pieces of research to create an online toolkit for healthcare commissioners.
Peter Carter, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “These results are shocking, and show serious failings in the care which is offered to people at times when they are extremely vulnerable.
“Sadly, we are not surprised, as our members have told us about the unacceptable squeeze on staffing levels across the board.
“Crisis teams are an emergency service, and like all such services it is irresponsible and short-sighted to cut them back to the bare bones.”
Care and support minister Norman Lamb said: “Through the mandate, this government has put a greater emphasis than ever before on mental health in the NHS.
“For the first time, we have acted to correct the institutional bias against mental health which has existed for so long, by asking the NHS to deliver genuinely equal treatment across mental and physical health.
“We are absolutely committed to ensuring that people get the right type of high quality care at the right time. We have reorganised mental health services so that care is improved in both the community and in hospitals.
“Handling mental health problems early in the community means that hospital care can be prevented and that crisis care is available to patients who need it, quickly.”
A Welsh government spokesman said: “Together for Mental Health, our mental health and well-being strategy, sets out our expectation that people should be able to access mental health services quickly and easily at all times.
“It confirms the importance of a well-trained, competent workforce, in sufficient numbers, to deliver care which is safe and therapeutic and respects the dignity of patients.”