With nearly a quarter of us having to wait to start treatment for our mental health, we share eight ways you can look after yourself while waiting to access support

The Royal College of Psychiatrists revealed that two in five (43%) adults with a mental illness feel that long waits for treatment have led to their mental health getting worse. With almost one in four (23%) of us waiting more than 12 weeks to start treatment - and many areas having limited types of support and numbers of sessions available - it’s no wonder so many of us feel like we’re not only struggling with our mental health, but aren’t getting the help that we need when we need it.

Non-urgent referrals for consultant-led treatments in England are legally entitled to be seen within 18 weeks, from the day the service or hospital receives your referral letter or the day your appointment is booked through the NHS e-Referral Service. But that can feel like a long time when you are struggling and feel like you need help now.

Taking that step and seeking a referral is huge. But it’s not always the instant fix we hope for - especially when faced with delays in receiving support. It’s natural to feel disappointed, overwhelmed, or unsure of what you can do while waiting to access help and support. So, what can you do to look after yourself until support becomes available?

If you’re worried you may be in crisis, seek help immediately

If you think you may have reached a crisis point, or are in immediate danger of harming yourself or others, seek help immediately. Call 999 or go to your nearest A&E department.

If you need to talk to someone now without worrying about being judged, you can call the Samaritans on 116 123 anytime, any day, or get in contact with them another way.

Reach out to friends and family

Asking for help from those we love when we’re struggling can feel impossible. When you’re struggling with your mental health, you may worry about opening up to friends or family, as you may fear you are being an inconvenience, adding extra stress to their lives, or may be seen as ‘over-reacting’.

You may worry about being judged or rejected, yet reaching out can help you to feel a deeper sense of connection with others, gain valuable outside perspective, and help to feel unstuck.

Try these tips on how to ask friends and family for help when you’re struggling.

Have a conversation with your boss

Talking about mental health in the workplace has become much more commonplace in recent years. Yet many of us may hesitate to let our employers know when we are struggling. It’s important to remember that your employer is legally obligated to make reasonable adjustments to help accommodate you – but in order to do so, they need to know that you need help.

If you don’t feel comfortable speaking directly with your boss, you can always speak with HR confidentially. HR can also signpost any additional information or services your employer may provide, such as free-of-charge counselling services, or access to a reduced cost or employer-funded employee assistance programme (EAP).

Find out more about how to talk about mental health at work.

Look after your physical health and mental wellbeing

Maintaining or creating a supportive, healthy routine to look after your mental and physical health can be challenging at the best of times. Yet when you’re struggling, it can act as a crucial extra form of support.

Regular exercise – whether that’s getting outdoors for walks, doing something mindful but physical like yoga, or taking part in a class or regular gym sessions – can boost your mood, releasing feel-good hormones that give you energy and help you to feel better in yourself. Exercise can help you to better manage stress, anxiety, and intrusive thoughts.

Ensuring you get enough sleep can help to break unhelpful cycles. For example, feelings of anxiety, stress or worry may lead to you having trouble falling, getting, or staying asleep. This can lead to tiredness, trouble focusing during the day, lower mood, and further feelings of stress, anxiety and worry.

If you find yourself struggling to switch off or wind down, practising mindfulness techniques or meditation can help you to feel more relaxed, grounded, and in control.

Happiful’s Hannah guides you through a simple meditation for complete relaxation

Try other free resources and alternative support

There are many different types of free support and resources you can access while waiting for therapy. Some people find self-help books can offer good basic advice and guidance. Check out your local library to see if they are taking part in the Reading Well scheme. Designed to help offer support and better understanding of mental health and wellbeing, books within this scheme have been recommended by health experts and those with lived experiences, to help with mental health, long-term conditions, and a variety of other issues.

The NHS’s Better Health: Every mind matters site offers advice and support, access to a free mind plan (with tips on boosting your mood, sleeping better, and dealing with stress, as well as access to sign up for anxiety-easing emails). You can also get free access to self-help CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) techniques and video guides.

Local and national mental health charities may also be able to offer help and support. Different charities may offer different support in different areas, so it’s always good to check out their websites to see what telephone, online, text, or in-person support may be available.

Some charities like Beat, the eating disorder charity, offer special programmes to support and motivate those waiting for treatment to start. Beat’s Motivate programme offers weekly calls for those waiting to start anorexia or bulimia treatment, as well as monthly moderated peer support groups, for up to three months.  

If reaching out and speaking with someone in person feels overwhelming right now, there are many free, helpful apps that can also help you to track your mood, offer helpful suggestions, and even provide guided audio exercises to help reduce stress, assist with sleep, and decrease anxiety.

Learn more and prepare for your first session

The idea of therapy can be daunting if you haven’t tried it before. Preparing yourself for what to expect, and learning more about what counselling can entail can offer reassurance and create a sense of calm and control.

While things can vary depending on what type of therapy you are offered, as well as between individual therapists, there are certain things you can expect from your first therapy session. You are likely to be encouraged to talk about how you are feeling, specific issues you may be struggling with, and any particular goals or changes you may like to make.

CBT is one of the most common forms of therapy offered for a wide variety of issues. We explain more about what to expect when receiving CBT for anxiety.

Keep a journal

While journaling isn’t a substitute for mental health support, keeping a journal can be a therapeutic experience in and of itself. As therapist Deborah Holder, MBACP Reg Accred, explains, “A journal can help you to notice patterns in your behaviour and emotional responses. It’s an opportunity to reflect on your experiences, feelings, thoughts and behaviour. It can be a way of thinking about what you would like to change, what is missing, or what you would like to do more. It can be empowering, a release, or an alternative to destructive behaviour.”

Journaling can also help you to work through what is worrying you, help you to find the words to express those worries, and keep them all in one place, ready to reference when needed.

Take a break or curate your social media feeds

Taking a break from social media can have a positive impact on your mental health and wellbeing. With so many different platforms out there, between the constant barrage of messages, adverts, and inevitable doomscrolling. Being more mindful of how and when you access social media can help you to reduce how much time you spend scrolling and avoiding other things. Ensuring you follow positive, helpful accounts can also be helpful if you find constant news or world event updates are affecting your mood.

We share more about how to find positivity on social media.

Consider private therapy

Private therapy sessions can offer an alternative or temporary stop-gap until you can access NHS support. Working with a private therapist or counsellor can provide quicker access to mental health support and guidance, as well as greater choice over the type of therapy and type of therapist you wish to explore and work with.

Some private practitioners offer low-cost therapy for everyone, while others may offer special concessions or rates for those on benefits, low income, or on a case-by-case basis. Discover more about the benefits of private therapy.

Psychotherapist and counsellor Disree Shaw explains more about the benefits of counselling

Looking for private support? Connect with a professional using Counselling Directory.