HUNDREDS of people with severe mental health problems are waiting more than a year for counselling, in an “absolutely shocking situation” which an expert warns is likely to cost lives.

There are huge backlogs for people waiting for NHS counselling in York and Selby, with 323 people who are in need of high-intensity counselling for conditions including severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder being put on a 14-month waiting list, The Press has learned.

A further 207 people suffering from conditions including mild and moderate depression and anxiety are on a four-month waiting list for low-intensity counselling.

It is a further worrying revelation over mental health provision in York after two counselling services – York Mind and York Women’s Counselling – said earlier this year they had to close their waiting lists due to demand.

Leeds and York Partnership NHS Foundation Trust has acknowledged the problem but says it would need an extra 27 members of staff to clear the waiting list.

David Smith, chief executive of the charity York Mind, said: “It’s an absolutely shocking situation for us to be in in the 21st century.

“It's a scandal, it’s not just a local scandal but a national one. These people are critically unwell. People will die while they are on that list.

“Imagine breaking your leg and being told you have a very serious problem which could get worse but you have to wait over a year for help.

“While they are on that list they are becoming more and more poorly. They are becoming withdrawn, lonely, isolated, frightened and scared.

“Suicide is a very real possibility and it may well have happened but we don't know. We have suicides in York but we don't know how many are on waiting lists for talking therapies.

“People have expressed anger, disbelief and despair. People don’t know where to go to. For someone who is very unwell and in crisis, they can't comprehend it.”

Mr Smith said the success of talking therapies was widely accepted and resources may need to be allocated away from more “traditional” methods.

The waiting time figures were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act in June and given to The Press by a patient awaiting treatment for depression.

York Outer MP Julian Sturdy said he was looking into the matter on behalf of his constituent.

York and Selby Partnership NHS trust said: “The trust has experienced a steady increase in referrals and waiting times have become longer than we would wish. In February 2012, we undertook a review of the IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) service in response to the rising demand and increase in waiting times.

“Our review highlighted that current funding levels give a shortfall of over 27.5 trained IAPT workers in York and Selby compared to national requirements. Our commissioners are fully aware of this shortfall and we are working closely with them to explore ways of using our limited resource to best effect.”

It said it was looking at “streamlining” the referral process and group work as well as providing computerised cognitive behavioral therapy and telephone interventions as alternatives to face-to-face sessions.

Mr Smith said York Mind had recently agreed to double its capacity for counselling. While its waiting lists remain closed, more sessions are expected to become available.

York Mind can offer advice and support for people seeking treatment on 01904 643364.

Anyone experiencing feelings of depression and contemplating suicide can phone York Samaritans on 01904 655888.

There is currently a 17-week wait for “step two” of the IAPT services in which a “psychological wellbeing practitioner” provides low-intensity interventions for people with conditions including mild to moderate depression, anxiety and panic disorders and OCD.

There is a 14-month wait for “step three”, which is delivered by high-intensity cognitive-behavioural therapists for people with conditions including severe depression, social phobia and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Case Study

FOR one patient waiting on a lengthy list for long-term depression, life has been left in limbo Michael, a 39-year-old administrator, said: “When you are put on the waiting list for IAPT step three it is recognised that you do need further support, so to then find that you are likely to have to wait over a year is quite surprising.

“Once you are on the waiting list you are left in limbo with little support if you are going through a particularly bad period of depression. Like many people, I am not in a position to be able to afford private therapy sessions, so have to rely on the NHS for my mental health in times of need.

“It is not just myself I am concerned about. Many people with depression have difficulty holding down a job and can even be a risk to themselves.

“It feels like mental health is not treated on a par with physical health. If NHS users were regularly having to wait over a year for an operation it would be taken seriously. It appears at the moment that it is acceptable for patients using mental health services to be put on long waiting lists, because few people will complain.”

• Name changed to protect anonymity.