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Navigating self-referrals to mental health services

Photo by Cultura Creative for Adobe Stock

In this blog, one of our Citizen Panel members reflects on their experience of using self-referral for seeking mental health care.



Over the years, I’ve needed help with my mental health and have used self-referral several times.  The reason I have self-referred is because if I ask my GP for help, they tell me they don’t offer counselling or therapy and refer me to the local wellbeing service – which I can do myself.

The process starts with filling in a short online questionnaire and then waiting for the call. When someone phones we go through the questionnaire. There is immediate support if it’s an emergency, but if not, you have to wait. The waiting period depends on availability and questionnaire responses, it’s often two to three months. 

Mixed experiences with self-referral

I’ve used the self-referral process about five times with good and bad experiences. The level of support is variable – one time I had six sessions, but another time I was offered less sessions and was told just to work on this on my own. So much seems to depend on the therapist and questionnaire responses. I had one very bad experience when I felt there was no compassion, and I had been misjudged and misrepresented. I haven’t self-referred again since the bad experience. 

There hasn’t been much continuity when I’ve self-referred. After discharge, I feel that my relationship with that therapist has finished. When I need more help, I self-refer again and always see someone different.

Although the self-referral application process is quite easy, the options are not clear, and services aren’t joined up. I would find it helpful to see a big map showing the options and services, such as community services and support groups. 

Navigating the system: Improving clarity and accessibility

There are some things that would make the mental health self-referral process better. Firstly, making it clear what all the options are for getting help; second, reducing the waiting times; third, giving the option of having further appointments with the same therapist; fourth, having better links with other mental health services; and finally, ensuring there is always compassion – it takes a lot of resilience for someone to ask for help.

Related resources

What works: Mitigating inequalities in patient self-referral to specialist services

Self-referral of patients directly to specialist services may help relieve pressure from GPs; however, concerns have been raised that this may increase inequalities. This brief presents recommendations to mitigate the potential of self-referral to increase inequalities.

Read more