How to access mental health services

Mental health services are free on the NHS, but in most cases you will need a referral from your GP to access them.

There are some mental health services that will allow people to refer themselves. This commonly includes services for drug problems and alcohol problems, as well as psychological therapies (IAPT) services.

If your mental health difficulty is related to stress in your workplace, you can ask your employer what occupational health services are available to you. Check out the Time to Change website, which has a section dedicated to employers.

If you are at school or college, mental health care may be arranged for you. Read our information on child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS).

Some mental health problems can be managed without the help of a GP. There are a variety of materials available and local organisations offering help. You can also try our mood assessment quiz, which is designed to recommend resources to help you better understand how you feel.

For local support and information services, use our Services near you search. Try the following directories:

If you want to talk to someone right away, the mental health helpline page has a list of organisations you can call for immediate assistance. These are helplines with specially trained volunteers who'll listen to you, understand what you're going through, and help you through the immediate crisis.

The Samaritans operates a free to call service 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for people who want to talk in confidence. Call them on 116 123 or visit the Samaritans website.

Also read our advice about dealing with a mental health crisis or emergency.

Choosing a mental health service

Your GP will assess your circumstances and offer appropriate advice or treatment. They can also refer you to a psychological therapy service or a specialist mental health service for further advice or treatment.

These services may be provided by your GP surgery, a large local health centre, a specialist mental health clinic, or a hospital. The treatment may be provided on a one-to-one basis or in a group with others with similar difficulties, and therapy sometimes also involves partners and families.

You have the legal right to choose which provider and clinical team you're referred to by your GP for your first outpatient appointment. In most cases you have a right to choose which mental health service provider you go to in England.

You don't have a legal right to choice when:

  • you need urgent or emergency treatment
  • you already receive care and treatment for the condition you are being referred for
  • the organisation or clinical team does not provide clinically appropriate care for your condition
  • you are a prisoner, on temporary release from prison, or detained in other prescribed accommodation – such as a court, a secure children's home, a secure training centre, an immigration removal centre, or a young offender institution
  • you are detained in a secure hospital setting
  • you are a serving member of the armed forces – see information for veterans, below
  • you are detained under the Mental Health Act 1983

GOV.UK has more information about your legal right to choice, see the NHS Choice Framework.

How the NHS website can help you choose

You can compare mental health service providers using the Services near you search tool – simply enter the name of the mental health service or the service provider and your postcode.

Alternatively, you can use one of these directories:

Use the glossary section for more information about the different services and teams available.

Once you have 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 will be seen by the consultant or named professional who leads the mental health team, or another healthcare professional on the team.

How to book your appointment

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

This can happen in the following ways:

  • your GP can book it while you're at the surgery
  • you can book it online 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 8am to 4pm on weekends and bank holidays

How long do I have to wait for my appointment?

Consultant-led mental health services are covered by the NHS 18 week maximum waiting time. For more information, read the guide to NHS waiting times.

NHS England is working to improve services and reduce waiting times for those experiencing mental health issues. As set out in the Five Year Forward View for Mental Health, NHS England is committed to developing and implementing mental health care pathways – including maximum waiting times for treatment – by 2020/21. Standards are being implemented on a phased basis.

Access and waiting times have been introduced for Improved Access to Psychological Therapies and for those experiencing a first episode of psychosis. A standard has been announced for community based eating disorders for children and young people and further pathways are in development.

The following standards were introduced in April 2016:

  • At least 75% of people referred to an IAPT services should be seen within six weeks but the majority (at least 95%) should be seen by 18 weeks.
  • More than 50% of people experiencing a first episode of psychosis will be treated with a NICE-approved care package within two weeks of referral.
  • At least 15% of adults with depression or anxiety disorders should have access to IAPT services each year, rising to 25% of people by 2020/21.
  • At least 50% of people completing treatment in IAPT services should reach recovery.

Page last reviewed: 26/04/2016
Next review due: 26/04/2019