There is a “massive problem” of depleting numbers of mental health doctors, a leading psychiatrist has warned.

Professor Dinesh Bhugra, the outgoing president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, told the Guardian not enough British doctors were training as psychiatrists while visa restrictions meant foreign doctors could no longer fill the gap.

He said 14 per cent of consultants posts in the UK were either unfilled or filled by a locum. An additional 209 consultants intended to retire or resign soon.

“This is a huge, a massive problem,” Professor Bhugra told the newspaper.

“We will be left with a dangerous vacuum of help for people with mental health disorders or will be forced to get special dispensation from the government to recruit heavily from countries who can ill afford to lose their mental health professionals.

“Society will be overwhelmed by the demand of those in need if government doesn’t act now.”

The newspaper reported that a research paper by the royal college, which is to be published next month, shows the number of medical graduates who accepted an offer of psychiatry training posts in England and Wales fell from 184 in 2009 to 158 in 2010.

A Department of Health spokeswoman said: “Mental health is a cross-government priority. We published No Health Without Mental Health, our cross-government mental health outcomes strategy, to drive up standards in services and improve the nation’s mental health.

“The strategy makes clear that mental health services should be just as important as physical health services such as those for cancer and heart disease.

“We have supported the Royal Colleges of GPs and Psychiatrists to develop advice and support for commissioning consortia to commission effective mental health services. The strategy emphasises the importance of improving quality and productivity across the system, while making efficiency savings that can be reinvested in the service to deliver quality improvements.

“In addition, we will invest around £400m over four years in psychological therapies for those who need them in all parts of England, expanding provision for the entire population.”