The Tories are trying to paper over the gaping cracks in mental health services with a ‘toolkit’

Jeremy Hunt Mental Health NHS
Steve Topple

On Wednesday 30 August the Conservative government launched a new public health initiative. But far from being a groundbreaking project, the scheme will merely serve to paper over the cracks in the UK’s mental health system; cracks that the Tories have, in part, been responsible for creating.

Saving money. Again

Public Health England (PHE) has revealed a new “tool” for local teams to identify “the most cost effective mental health programmes”. PHE says that the idea is to:

…reduce the incidence and/or risk of mental health problems at all stages of life: children and young people, the working age population and older people. Mental health problems represent the largest single cause of disability in the UK. The cost to the economy is estimated at £105 billion a year.

It outlines eight programmes that it wishes local public health teams to consider implementing, which produce “an estimated saving to society” for every £1 spent:

  • Children: whole school anti bullying programme – £1.58 saving per £1 spent, over four years.
  • Children: social and emotional learning – £5.08 over three years.
  • Workplace: wellbeing programme – £2.37 over one year.
  • Workplace: stress prevention – £2.00 over two years.
  • Collaborative care for physical health problems – £1.52 over two years.
  • Older people: tackling loneliness through volunteering and social activities – £1.26 over five years.
  • Adults: debt and welfare service – £2.60 over five years.
  • Adults: suicide prevention – £2.93 over 10 years.

Lip service

Health Minister Lord O’Shaughnessy said:

Improving the nation’s mental health is a government priority. The tool and resources published today will give public services the evidence they need to ensure spending on mental health is as cost effective as possible. It is part of a broad and ambitious plan to combat mental illness, which includes the first ever access and waiting time standards and record levels of public spending on mental health provision.

Cut to the bone

But PHE and the government’s strategy ignores seven years of cuts to, and failings of, mental health services by successive Conservative-led governments. Because since 2010, as The Canary has repeatedly documented:

  • The NHS has seen a real-terms cut in the amount of money given to it per patient.
  • The Tories have cut £50m from children’s mental health services.
  • Between 2010 and 2015 mental health trusts lost the equivalent of £598m from their budgets each year.
  • Findings show that there are still £4.5m of mental health spending cuts across five areas of England to come.
  • 726 patients a month are being treated “out of area” from where they live.
  • The number of people arriving in A&E with psychiatric issues has doubled since 2010.


And as The Canary reported on 29 August, Labour’s Shadow Police Minister Louise Haigh highlighted another area where the impact of cuts to mental health services is being felt – the police:

Haigh… has obtained figures on the number of calls relating to mental health received by the Metropolitan Police. According to the freedom of information request, the Met handled 115,000 calls last year. That means the service received a call where someone was concerned about a person’s mental health every five minutes.

The figures show this is up from 2011/12 by a third. And calls aren’t the only thing on the rise. The Guardian reports that the use of mental health detention powers by police is also on course to increase. Police used these powers 28,271 times in 2015/16.

Mental health services, like much of the NHS, are at breaking point. Seven years of Tory-led austerity and an agenda of privatisation-by-stealth have left services on their knees. So, another money-saving exercise is cynical, at best. And this new strategy by PHE seems more of a quick fix by the government to problems it created, rather than a joined-up, long term solution.

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