The terrible strain inflicted by the Conservatives on mental health services

Monday 28th August 2017

barbara-keeleyBarbara Keeley, Labour Party Parliamentary Candidate for Worsley and Eccles South

This General Election must be a turning point for mental health.

The next government must commit to preventing mental health budgets from being raided to plug financial gaps in the NHS, and commit to increasing funding for Child and Adolescent Mental Health services. The scandals of children being treated on adult mental health wards, and of people being sent for treatment miles away from home, must be stopped. And a long-term strategy for tackling the surge in mental ill health in our children and young people must be developed urgently.

Theresa May has spoken of the “burning injustice” of mental health in our society. She has talked about reducing the stigma of mental ill health and the differences in treatment of those with mental health problems compared to physical health.

Speeches and public campaigns are important if we are to change attitudes and raise public awareness of mental health. But talking about mental health is not enough. Campaigns to change attitudes must be backed by better resourcing, and we have not seen this from the Conservatives in government.

Reducing the stigma around mental health is no substitute for properly resourced services, while the treatment gap between mental and physical health will not be closed by speeches and campaigns. Nor will speeches help reduce the number of people with poor mental health.

For the parent who is waiting months for their child to be assessed by Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, the patient who is sent hundreds of miles away from the support of their family for a mental health bed, or the young child who is being treated on an adult mental health ward, what is needed is not more talk but more resources and more action.

The reality is that our mental health services have never been under more pressure. Funding to mental health services has been cut by over 8 per cent since 2010, while the number of mental health nurses has fallen by more than 6,000.

Mental health budgets have been raided to plug financial black holes in NHS budgets. This March, we learnt that £800 million intended for mental health, community and primary care services was used, instead, to stem financial deficits in the NHS. Those pressures are only set to worsen as the NHS seeks to make further efficiency gains.

NHS England said, in 2016, that Clinical Commissioning Groups should spend an extra £1 billion on mental health by 2020-21. Yet, 46 CCGs are not expected to meet that standard in 2016-17. Indeed, a recent survey found that CCGs in five areas plan to cut a combined £35 million from their mental health budgets in 2017-18.

With services so stretched, there is little attention given to reducing the number of people getting ill in the first place. Half of people with mental health problems as adults present symptoms by age 14, and 75 per cent by age 18. One in ten children aged between five and 16 has a diagnosable mental health disorder.

The average onset age for depression is now just 14 years. Yet, just 8 per cent of the Mental Health Budget is spent on children and young people.

A quarter of children and young people who are referred to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services are turned away, with many not receiving any help until their condition becomes chronic or life-threatening.

Despite that, this Tory government has done nothing about the silent epidemic of mental ill health in our classrooms, promising only that schools will have mental health “first aid experts”.

School counselling services are patchy, at best, and, as the House of Commons’ Health and Education select committees recently highlighted, these essential support services will be the first to go when school budgets are cut as a result of the Tory Government’s changes to the school funding formula.

Tackling the burning injustice of mental health requires more than warm words. Attitude change is important, but is not a substitute for resourcing services properly. Encouraging people to seek help for mental health problems is important, but what happens when they pluck up the courage to see their GP only to be told that there is a waiting list of six months for talking therapy?

Warm words are no longer enough. Now is the time for real action.

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