This #WorldMentalHealthDay, we’re making sure people know how important mental health services are for autistic people. Tim Nicholls from our Policy Team has written a blog on the subject:

Today is World Mental Health Day, but it isn’t the only day that we highlight the importance of autism understanding among mental health professionals and the need for autistic people to get the right support for their mental health problems. 

We make this point every day – from the Policy Team here at The National Autistic Society and from our campaigners and supporters all around the country. But for World Mental Health Day we want to highlight the facts around mental health and autism and tell you some people’s stories.

First to the facts. Autism is not a mental health condition, but 70% of autistic children and 79% of autistic adults do develop a mental health problem, like anxiety and depression, at some point.

Without the right support, both for their autism and their mental health problems, these can become worse and worse. We hear from autistic people and their families who have been driven to crisis point from a lack of support. Why the wait?

Autistic people’s mental health problems can arise at any time – just like any other person. But many people we speak to have told us there are particular problems around the time of their diagnosis. Especially if they have had to wait a long time for a diagnosis, which we know far too many people have. 

But Chris can tell you better himself – he worked with us on our Autism diagnosis crisis campaign. Chris said, “Although for many years I was able to function, my needs were never really met. I became suicidal. If I hadn’t been able to get a diagnosis I would have taken my own life.

The diagnosis was a moment of enlightenment. It gave me dignity and self-respect and helped me to access the support I’d been seeking for years.

“I consider myself deeply fortunate to be in the current position that I’m in. I am keen to raise awareness of the diverse autism spectrum so others don’t have to go through the years of uncertainty I endured."

Emma was trying to get a diagnosis for her son, Noah. She said, "We were really struggling with my son and pinned all our hopes on a quick diagnosis. But hearing the waiting list could be up to a year long was frustrating, especially after it'd already taken two years to get to this point. I felt like I'd let my son down. I feel for any family that has had to wait to be told their child is autistic. Waiting makes you feel powerless to support your son or daughter. It's damaging and completely unnecessary."

Sometimes, autistic people’s mental health problems can become so severe that they may need quite intensive help. All too often, mental health professionals don’t have enough understanding of autism to support autistic children and adults effectively and to treat their mental health problems at home. This needs to change.

All mental health professionals need specific training in autism so that they can adapt mental health treatment effectively.

Data matters

It may not sound exciting, but collecting the right data is really important to tackling these issues, and getting the right support put in place by people who understand autism. If we can measure how many people are getting a diagnosis, how long people are waiting for help and what happens after they get help, we would know how to improve areas that need more services and training. 

But at the moment, the NHS just doesn’t collect enough data about autism. There is a real chance to improve this in mental health, as new data is being collected. We want to make sure autism is included in new data collections, to help address mental health inequality for autistic people.

What now?

NHS England has been specifically tasked with reducing health inequalities for autistic people and laws across the UK say that all people should get the care and treatment they need. Mental health is vital to that.

So, this World Mental Health Day, we’re repeating our calls on the Government and the NHS:
  • reduce diagnosis waiting times
  • make sure all staff in mental health know about autism and know what changes they need to make to therapies and interventions
  • make sure that autistic people can access their GP for support when they need it
  • collect the data they need to check that autistic people are benefitting equally from the health service.