PEOPLE with mental health problems are missing out on vital support due to a shortage of specialist social workers, new figures show.

Ministers are being urged to address the problem after the number of mental health officers (MHOs) plummeted to its lowest level since 2005.

A report from the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC) states that there are now only 657 MHOs practising in Scotland and it would take an additional 30 full-time workers to fill the shortfalls reported by councils.

An ageing workforce is exacerbating the problem and more than half of the 62 workers who left the profession last year did so by retiring. However the proportion of workers aged under 40 rose slightly last year.

MHOs, who are qualified social workers with additional training in mental health, work with people who have acute or enduring mental illness and those undergoing a mental health crisis, to help protect their rights and liaise with clinicians. They have special duties to help anyone at risk of being detained under the Mental Health Act and can be involved in mental health tribunals.

However social work experts said workloads and a postcode lottery in terms of remuneration made MHO posts unattractive.

The Mental Welfare Commission and charities called for the Scottish Government to act to address the problem.

Colin McKay, chief executive of the Mental Welfare Commission, said: "We are disappointed but not surprised at these figures. The Commission has raised its concerns over declining numbers of mental health officers for some time, against a background of a significant rise in caseload. "These specialist social workers play a key role in protecting the rights of people with mental ill health or learning disability.

"We urge the Scottish Government and local authorities to work together to ensure the MHO service is sufficiently resourced to fulfil the responsibilities placed on it in mental health and incapacity law."

Billy Watson, chief executive of SAMH, Scotland’s leading mental health charity, added: “Mental health officers play a vital role in safeguarding the human rights of people detained under the Act, so it is crucial that this workforce is well-supported.

"The MHO workforce has been of serious concern for many years, but the current figures are extremely worrying in light of the additional duties placed on MHOs by the Mental Health Act 2015, with a workforce at an all-time low.

"SAMH calls for increased recruitment, funding and training for MHOs to help them to meet these duties and uphold the rights of extremely vulnerable individuals with mental health problems or adults with incapacity."

He welcomed the increase in younger MHOs but said councils should ensure they were not overwhelmed by cases. "The fact that 21 out of 32 local authorities have a shortfall of MHOs is simply not good enough," he said.

Trish Hall, of the Scottish Association of Social Work (SASW), said workloads were deterring many social workers away from becoming involved in mental health work but the situation needed to be addressed, especially in the light of the new Mental Health (Scotland) Act 2015 and the increasing integration of health and social care.

"Workloads have just become unbearable and it is very difficult to do any of the therapeutic work that really should come with the job," she said.

Anna Fowlie, chief executive of SSSC, said: “It is interesting to see from the results of the survey how the profile of the MHO workforce is gradually changing with 56 trainees joining the MHO award courses run by three universities in Scotland and around 30 MHOs retiring last year. "Added to this the increase in the proportion of younger workers along with the decrease in the proportion of older workers, especially in women aged 60 and over, may indicate that the recent trend of an ageing MHO workforce is being reversed to some extent."

Minister for Sport, Health Improvement and Mental Health, Jamie Hepburn, said: “Mental health officers make an invaluable contribution towards improving the lives of mental health patients and their friends and families.

“It is the responsibility of local authorities to plan their MHO workforce, ensuring they have the appropriate levels of staff in place to provide services for their residents.

"The Scottish Government has announced an additional £100 million investment in mental health services over the next five years.”