People in Surrey who have a severe mental illness are set to benefit from a ground-breaking new community mental health service designed to improve access to a wide range of specialist support.

Extended appointments with mental health experts from the NHS, social care and specialist third sector organisations, plus access to therapies, physical health checks and pharmacists, are just some of the wider expertise patients will be able to access at their local GP practice and in the community under new ways of working.

Patients will be able to explore the situation affecting their wellbeing – whether that is an ongoing mental or physical health problem, loneliness, debt, or other issues. They can then be guided to appropriate resources that may help, including talking therapies, benefits advice, or an introduction to a local community group.

Around 50% of those with severe mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, or major depression, currently see their GP to manage the majority of their care and treatment. But, until now, this level of multi-agency support has mostly only been available to those referred to a specialist community mental health team.

Surrey Heartlands Health and Care Partnership has been awarded £5.76m from a total of £70m set aside by NHS England to transform community mental health care in twelve ‘early implementer’ areas. Services are expected to be up and running by April 2020 as part of a gradual roll-out and will include an extensive recruitment campaign.

Mental health specialist, Surrey and Borders Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, will lead the local implementation over the next two years. The new funding will enable the Trust to expand upon field trials which have been running across three primary care networks (groups of GP practices working together) in Chertsey and Ottershaw, Banstead, and Guildford over the past six months.

This service, known locally as GPimhs (General Practice Integrated Mental Health Service), is to be scaled up and extended across eight further sites across Surrey – creating eleven in total.

Dr Claire Fuller, Senior Responsible Officer for the Surrey Heartlands Health and Care Partnership, said: “Some patients need a greater level support than can be offered in a normal appointment but they don’t meet the criteria for the local mental health services and so fall between the gaps of the support that’s on offer.  This means that GPs feel like they are left to deal with a high level of complexity and need on their own while patients feel like they are struggling to access the help they need to get better and stay well.”

The plans include expanding the specific support available for people with a personality disorder and developing more targeted support for young people aged 18 – 25 years old.

Health leaders estimate the changes will prevent around 10,000 adults each year from needing frequent GP appointments. This will free-up around 5 to 7.5 hours, equating to 30-45 appointments of GP clinical time every week.

The service is also intended to address the long standing health inequalities faced by people with severe mental illness. Professor Helen Rostill, Chief Innovation Officer and Director of Therapies, from Surrey and Borders Partnership NHS Foundation Trust said: “It is unacceptable that people with severe mental illness die around 20 years younger than average. This is often because of poor physical health and social factors, whilst smoking, drug or alcohol use, are also big influences.

“By providing expert advice and support to local GP practices, we hope to reach more people, free up clinical time and help reduce the risk of people relapsing when their care is transferred back to their GP. Ultimately it is about intervening early to save lives and improve quality of life.”

The developments reflect the ambitions set out in the NHS Long Term Plan, published in January this year, to transform community mental health services for adults of all ages with moderate to severe mental illnesses.

Third sector mental health providers Richmond Fellowship, Catalyst Support, Mary Frances Support, which work together as Community Connections to provide mental health support, have been part of this integrated service.