Theresa May has announced that she is going to “transform” attitudes towards mental health. She claims she is going to invest in children’s services, schools and workplaces. And she believes that mental health is “dangerously disregarded”.
May is right. There is a huge need to take mental health seriously and invest in services. But there is a massive problem in what she is saying. She hasn’t taken into account the damage her government has already done to mental health services. Nor has she acknowledged the impact her government’s policies have had on the nation’s mental health.
Cuts to services
May is not the first prime minister to promise reforms to mental health services. Her predecessor, David Cameron, also promised a radical overhaul of the system. In fact, Cameron promised a “revolution” in mental health services.
But the reality for services and those who rely on them is very different. Despite a £1bn spending pledge, figures in August revealed that 60% of mental health trusts have cut the number of beds they have available for mental health crisis care.
Meanwhile, spending on mental health is decreasing across the country due to massive deficits in NHS budgets. Analysis from the Kings Fund in 2016 showed that 40% of NHS trusts had slashed the amount of money they spend on mental health.
An example of this has happened in Cornwall, where the trust NHS Kernow has a deficit of just under £40m. As a result, several mental health services have lost their funding. This included decommissioning vocational workers at Pentreath, an award-winning mental health charity, and scrapping Nightlink, an out-of-hours emergency crisis line. These organisations provide much-needed support to people across the county.
But where May’s promises really start to fall down is on the issue of inequality and poverty. Mental illness does not exist in isolation. Research has shown there is a correlation between inequality and mental health. According to the British Journal of Psychiatry:
There are threefold differences in the proportion of the population suffering from mental illness between more and less equal countries.
Figures from the Equality Trust show that the UK:
has a very high level of income inequality compared to other developed countries.
And this is compounded by information revealing that the UK’s rich elite doubled their net worth since the economic crash. Inequality is getting worse, not better. And research shows this is fundamental to our mental health. The analysis in the British Journal of Psychiatry states:
As professionals dedicated to improving the health of the population, our role in calling for greater equality is as important in the 21st century as the efforts of the great public health reformers of the Victorian era who called for improvements in sanitation, housing, nutrition and working conditions.
Exasperating the problem
And if this inequality wasn’t bad enough, those in need are not being helped by the welfare system. In fact, not only are they not being helped, but their problems are being exasperated by the system. 83% of people surveyed by mental health charity Mind said that the back-to-work scheme made their problems worse.
Further, those on Employment Support Allowance (ESA) for mental health issues are far more likely to be sanctioned rather than helped. 62% of those with mental health problems have been sanctioned. In many cases, this is punishing people for things, such as turning up to meetings, that they simply cannot do because of their mental illness.
Assessments for Personal Independent Payment (PIP) are often inadequate for mental health problems and can cause further problems or relapses. Disabled People Against the Cuts has described the tests as “unfair and degrading”.
Parity of Esteem
May wants “parity of esteem” for mental health services. In other words, mental health services should be on a par with those offered for physical health needs. Unfortunately, as the Red Cross warns of a “humanitarian crisis” in the NHS, the only “parity of esteem” this government seems capable of is to make all services as bad as each other.
We should welcome any efforts to help mental ill health. Especially efforts which tackle the very real stigma still associated with mental illness. And in talking about mental health, and making it headline news, May’s efforts do help this. We now need drastic action not only to reverse the cuts already made to services, but also to invest in them. And unless action is taken to address the real inequalities in our society, then the mental health crisis is only going to deepen.
– Support Disabled People Against the Cuts.
– Support the Mental Health Resistance Network.
Featured image via Flickr