FMQs: Massive rise in mental health crisis calls going unanswered claims Sarwar

Nearly 25,000 calls to Scotland’s mental health crisis support line have gone unanswered during the course of the pandemic, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar has claimed, with the average waiting time for an answer now more than half an hour.

Anas Sarwar raised concerns about a failure to support people seeking mental health help.
Anas Sarwar raised concerns about a failure to support people seeking mental health help.

At First Minister’s Questions, Mr Sarwar said new figures had revealed a steady increase in waiting times and abandoned calls to the NHS 24 hotline since the Covid emergency started.

A Freedom of Information request showed that 133 calls went unanswered in March of last year, but in January this year the number was 5,452 – more than 40 times higher – while over the course of the pandemic, 24,947 calls have gone unheeded.

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In particular, on New Year’s Day this year, 58 per cent of calls to the mental health hub were abandoned before they were answered, while the average daily waiting time had increased from three minutes or less in March last year to more than 30 minutes on some days in January.

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“We know the pandemic has had a devastating impact on the mental health of people across Scotland,” he said. “In- person mental health support has been more limited as a result of the crisis, and people have been encouraged to use the NHS 24 support line.

“But on nearly 25,000 occasions when individuals have built up the courage to pick up the phone and seek help, their calls have gone unanswered. These are people in crisis, and it’s the same story with young people who reach out for help too.”

He said that "one in four children and young people referred to child and adolescent mental health services are still rejected and for those who are successfully referred they’re supposed to be seen within 18 weeks” asking Nicola Sturgeon when the last time the 18 week standard had been met.

Despite Ms Sturgeon admitting unanswered calls were “not acceptable”, she said the government had invested in a range of mental health services and prior to the pandemic had “embarked on a significant programme of investment and reform to make sure we had more of a focus on early intervention and prevention.”

But Mr Sarwar said the answer to his question was “never”.

"This government and this First Minister has never met its mental health standards, for children or adults. Failures have consequences – in this case devastating ones.

“Right now, there are over 1500 children and young people in the midst of a pandemic who have been waiting more than a year for support. It’s actions, not promises, that save people’s lives.

“What those 1500 children and the people who made those 25,000 unanswered calls need is a parliament focused on a recovery plan that includes mental health services.”

However Ms Sturgeon accused Mr Sarwar of failing to provide any solutions to the problems he raised.

“Anas Sarwar is legitimately, in opposition, questioning a First Minister, but he didn’t outline a single positive solution.

"I have set out the investments we’re making, the reforms we’re undertaking... but not a single positive solution has come forward from the Labour benches.

“In fact just a week ago we put forward a budget, where working with other parties, we increased investment in mental health services. and Labour failed to back that budget.”

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