Health

The reality of Britain's underfunded, overburdened mental health services

We want to hear your stories behind the reality of mental health care provision. Get in touch on editorial@bigissue.com

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It’s the Cinderella service of the NHS, subject to brutal cuts and soaring demand. The government is promising more money but those on the front line say that after decades of underfunding it’s not enough to ease the crisis. We want to hear your stories of treatment that was inadequate, hard to access or just took too long to arrive. Most importantly, we want to know how this affected your health, your recovery and your life.

Mental Health Awareness Week has been and gone, in a way that mental illness stubbornly doesn’t. Amid powerful stories of crisis, treatment and recovery, this year critics began to point this out – highlighting that the issue needs more than just a week in the spotlight.

And while the problem’s growing, the safety net of NHS care is not being cast wide enough to meet the demand. Encouraging people to open up about their suffering is vital, but the right treatment may be hard to access or even unavailable.

Reader ‘G’ contacted us to say she’s suffering with anxiety. But the first appointment she could get with a GP was a month away and a wellbeing centre had a six-week wait for a phone consultation.

“A few years back the wellbeing centre was offering different courses and group therapy,” she says. “I looked today and saw only a few webinars (that I can’t book on to before my telephone appointment). All other courses have been cut.

“I desperately want to see a therapist but can’t afford it. I don’t have £60 a session to spare. It’s Mental Health Awareness Week and I am very much aware of my mental health. I am aware I need to talk to a professional. I am aware that I can’t.”

Cuts to funding came just as we finally recalibrated public understanding of mental health and that’s at the heart of the current crisis, says charity Mind.

“Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen a huge shift in attitudes towards mental health,” says Mind’s policy and campaigns manager Geoff Heyes. “Since the launch of Time to Change, [a campaign by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness] public awareness and understanding have improved dramatically. This is a positive thing, but as more and more people come forward for help, we will continue to see an increased demand.

“We know the earlier that people get the help they need, the better. When people don’t get the help they need they risk needing more intensive support further down the line. The ultimate consequence can be catastrophic – we lose almost 6,000 people a year to suicide.”

Another charity, SANE, says the number of people with depression and anxiety contacting them is rising, and their symptoms are more severe.

“We are particularly concerned about younger people, and especially young women, whose distress may be driven by factors like social media, or worries about money, relationships or jobs,” says chief executive Marjorie Wallace.

“Sadly, this growing need for support and treatment is not being met by mental health services, which despite repeated government pledges remain desperately short of the doctors, nurses and hospital beds needed to meet demand.”

And these shortages inevitably lead to delays, which can be devastating for patients – not just in the short term.

“Simply put, the longer the delay in receiving help and treatment, the worse the outcome is likely to be,” says Wallace. “With so many people still struggling to access high-quality care, we fear we are losing the opportunity to protect the mental health of this and future generations.”

The same concerns about access have already been expressed by doctors. Earlier this year, Professor Wendy Burn, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said promises from government of more cash weren’t being felt on the ground. Funding lagged “desperately” behind that of physical health provision, she added.

The figures back this up. Independent charity The King’s Fund reported in January that since 2012/13 funding for acute hospitals in England rose by 16.8 per cent while mental health trusts saw an increase of just 5.6 per cent.

It also pointed out that the net effect of staff turnover means there is a four per cent drop in mental health nurse numbers annually. The result for patients is delays and obstacles.

In a nutshell, the effect of underfunding and patchy provision means more suffering for the most vulnerable. Heyes says: “We know mental health services have been underfunded for decades and physical health has long been prioritised. There is a huge amount of work to do before people’s experience of services will improve.”

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