How to look after yourself while waiting for NHS mental health support

Posted by
Alice Purkiss

New data has revealed that almost one and a half million people in the UK were referred for NHS mental health therapies last year. But with referrals often taking months, how can you look after yourself while waiting for your therapy to begin? Here, freelance journalist Alice Purkiss speaks to the experts and breaks down the research to outline some useful ideas

It’s widespread knowledge that one in four people in the UK will engage in some sort of battle with their brain at least once during their lifetime. From anxiety to depression, and everything in between, the mind is a difficult beast to tame – and it seems society is finally becoming more accepting of this as a common truth. More people than ever are turning to the NHS for support: in fact, 1.4 million people were referred for talking therapies in 2015 and 2016.

However, there is no denying that the NHS is stretched. Mental health services are woefully underfunded and it’s taking time for people to access the help that they’ve so bravely sought out.

The NHS aims to see those who have been referred for psychiatric support for mild to moderate issues within a maximum of 18 weeks, in line with wait times for physical health issues, and 88% of people are currently seen within this timeframe. But waiting over four months, having taken the steps to seek help from a GP, can be painstaking at such a crucial time.

With this in mind, looking after yourself while you’re waiting for further support is essential. The internet is awash with self care tips that can help you look after your mental health in the long-run, but what can you do to take care of yourself while you’re waiting for a referral for cognitive behavioural therapy or counselling?

Here are a few easy steps you can take to help you keep going.

Congratulate yourself on taking the first step

Actually going to the GP to talk about mental health issues is no easy feat, so during the time you’re waiting for treatment, you should congratulate yourself on making the transition towards getting help. While you’re on the waiting list, remind yourself that you have taken the most significant step in making things better for yourself and relish that as one of the biggest acts of self-care that there is.


CBT therapist Suzy Dittmar recommends taking the time to prepare for your therapy. She tells, “A good place to start is to ask yourself what you are hoping to change. Of course, you may hope for relief from anxiety or depression, but you need something more concrete and specific to work towards.”

Dittmar offers some advice on how to figure this out. “Ask yourself: How does my difficulty affect my life - i.e. how would I ideally like to behave but am struggling to do so? This could range from ‘getting out of bed before nine’ to ‘talking to people at work’, from ‘leaving the house without checking and re-checking if appliances are switched off’ to ‘finding a hobby’ or ‘talking calmly to my children rather than shouting’. 

“Even if all you do is identify these wanted behaviours, you would be making a very good start.”

Keep a Mood diary

Keeping a mood diary will help your CBT practitioner or counsellor establish a good place to begin with your treatment. Hilda Burke, an integrative psychotherapist, couples counsellor and life coach, advises that keeping track of your mood throughout the day can help put your feelings in perspective. 

She tells, “It’s easy when you are feeling low to imagine that the feeling is unchanging and relentless. But keeping a mood diary will help you realise that the feelings do change over time and that sadness is rarely constant.” 

Your mood diary doesn’t need to be extensive – just a couple of words at various points throughout the day, such as morning, lunch, afternoon, evening and night, can help you keep track and begin establishing patterns in your mood. If you want to take tracking your mood a step further, you can begin paying attention to the negative thoughts you’re encountering on a regular basis and writing these down, too.

Keeping a mood diary can be useful preparation for therapy or counselling


Reading is not a cure for depression or anxiety, but it has proven benefits for those who are finding things difficult. Your own literature prescription may vary, but you might find comfort in the most unexpected of places. 

The idea of reading might seem impossible when you’re in the depths of your mind, but turning to childhood classics such as the Harry Potter series or Goodnight Mr Tom can offer the literary equivalent of an enveloping hug, whilst The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris, Awareness by Anthony Mello and The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion by Christopher Germer can offer more practical support.

Learn to be kind to yourself

Although this is one of the hardest things to do when you are struggling with your mental health, trying to be kind to yourself will make a huge difference to your recovery. Begin trying to be conscious of the ways you talk to yourself – consider whether you’d talk to a close friend in the same way, and try not to let your inner critic berate you so much. When you learn to become as supportive and encouraging to yourself as you are to others, you might find you need fewer therapy sessions and you’ll be less likely to relapse once your treatment has finished. 

Try being mindful

Mindfulness is more than just another buzzword thrown around the internet. The practise has been proven to help those struggling with anxiety and depression, and is recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a way to prevent depression in people who have had three or more bouts of it in the past. Being more “in the moment” allows you to be less wrapped up in your mind and can prevent you from entering a thought spiral that can exacerbate your symptoms. Even just a couple of moments of mindful breathing or walking each day can help. 

There are hundreds of meditations online, but you could try searching for a short “loving kindness” meditation (like this one from life coach Emily Hodge) that works for you and take the time to complete that meditation once a day.

Don’t be afraid to ask for more help

If you need help fast, especially if you feel suicidal, don’t hesitate to contact your GP and ask to be seen that day. Take yourself to A&E if you feel in acute danger. You can also contact The Samaritans and Mind if you need to talk. 

Images: iStock