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How you can access NHS mental health services

Find out about the different ways to get help with your mental health, the process, and your rights.


Mental health services are free on the NHS. Your mental health is important and you should get help if you need it.

Find NHS mental health services

Talk to your GP first

You'll need to talk to your GP to use some mental health services. This is known as a GP referral. Your GP can also talk to you about your mental health and help introduce you to the right mental health service for your needs.

Find your local GP surgery

Get help without talking to your GP

There are also some mental health services that you can use without talking to your GP first. This is known as self-referral.

For example, you may be able to refer yourself for help with drug problems and alcohol problems. You can also use self-referral to access talking therapies.

NHS talking therapies services

Get help through your work

If your mental health problem is because of stress at work, your employer might be able to refer you to occupational health services.

You can find out more from the Time to Change website.

Advice on mental health at work from Time to Change

Get help from your school or college

If you're a child or young person, your school or college might be able to refer you directly to a specialist mental health service.

Find out how to get mental health support if you are a child or young person.

How mental health referrals work

When you talk to your GP about your mental health they'll listen, give you advice and introduce you to a mental health service they think will be most helpful to you.

These services may come from your GP surgery, a large local health centre, a specialist mental health clinic or a hospital.

Your GP can also refer you to a psychological therapy service or a specialist mental health service for further advice or treatment. The treatment may be provided on a one-to-one basis or in a group with others with similar problems. Therapy can also sometimes involve partners and families.

Your right to choose who helps you

In most cases, you have a right to choose which mental health service provider you go to in England.

You have the legal right to choose which service provider and clinical team you're referred to for your first appointment.

What is a mental health service provider?

The NHS works with various organisations to run mental health services across England. They might be charities, private companies or not-for-profit organisations. These are called service providers.

You do not have a legal right to choose if:

  • you need urgent or emergency treatment
  • you already receive care and treatment for the condition
  • the organisation or clinical team you've chosen does not provide the right care for your condition
  • you're a prisoner or on temporary release from prison
  • you're detained in prescribed accommodation, such as a court, secure children's home, secure training centre, immigration removal centre or young offender institution
  • you're detained in a secure hospital setting
  • you're a serving member of the armed forces
  • you're detained under the Mental Health Act 1983
Find out more about your legal rights

The NHS Choice Framework on GOV.UK explains all the details of your legal right to choose.

Once you've chosen a service provider you also have the right to choose the mental health service team that will be in charge of your treatment.

You'll be seen by the consultant or named professional who leads the mental health team, or by another healthcare professional on the team.

How to book your appointment

Once you've decided on a mental health service provider, you might be able to book your appointment through the NHS e-Referral Service.

There are a few ways to do this:

  • your GP can book it while you're at the surgery
  • you can book it online yourself, using the appointment request letter your GP gives you
  • you can phone the NHS e-Referral Service line on 0345 60 88 88 8, open Monday to Friday, 8am to 8pm, and from 8am to 4pm on weekends and bank holidays
How long you will have to wait for an appointment

If the service you're being referred to is led by a consultant it will be covered by the NHS's commitment to make sure you're seen within 18 weeks.

Waiting times for other services will be different depending on where you are in England.

Find out more about waiting times for NHS services

Page last reviewed: 17 February 2022
Next review due: 17 February 2025