I start by declaring an interest. I really like The Right Honourable Norman Lamb. He knows his stuff on mental health. His values are sound, and he is an unassuming, witty and extremely kind man. He has also been dealing with distressing family issues and still managed to maintain focus on his job as Minister of State for Care and Support. Senior staff at NHS England such as Professor Sir Bruce Keogh vouch for him “holding our feet to the fire on mental health.”
Yet I became tetchy on reading the Liberal Democratic manifesto mental health promises yesterday. It feels a bit rich that a party that has been in power for a full parliamentary term, albeit as a junior partner in a coalition, should be making promises now after 5 years of not making these things happen.
My supporting evidence:
- I:4 of us will be mentally ill in any one year, according to the Mental Health Foundation. Yet mental health services are still the poor relation within the NHS family, missing out on new money and bearing the brunt when public sector “efficiencies” are required, as they have been during the last parliament. Under the coalition, this imbalance has grown measurably worse. The funding promises made in yesterday’s Lib Dem manifesto will to some extent redress the balance – but only if they come to fruition.
- I will need persuasion to believe that we will see this money, given the promises made in 2010 not in the last Lib Dem manifesto, but after the coalition government was formed. I was chairing the Mental Health Network of the NHS Confederation at the time, and was invited to speak at the launch of the coalition’s mental health strategy alongside Mr Lamb’s predecessor Paul Burstow. We felt excited and optimistic that parity of esteem between physical and mental health services was being promised at the start of the new parliament and ahead of any other health announcements. What happened?
- Children’s mental health services, one of the top priority areas in the manifesto, are in a state of particular crisis. This is because of cuts to local authority funding of front-line services in schools and those provided by the third sector, reductions to NHS community services, substantial increases in referrals linked in part to the downturn but also modern pressures felt by young people. There has been near-chaos in the commissioning of these services arising from changes to the NHS and Social Care Act, which although a Conservative-led initiative which they now admit was a mistake, could have been halted or at least improved by the Lib Dems. One of the most troubling outcomes is that sick children now wait regularly in police cells while desperate clinicians and managers scour the country for a suitable hospital bed. Staff are overwhelmed, and parents are desperate. Given that 75% of mental illnesses start, as mine did, before the age of 18, and that early intervention is now known to make such a difference, this situation is not only cruel, it is also extremely short-sighted.
- According to W Edwards Deming, if you don’t measure, you can’t manage. Mental health services have been crying out for a commissioning currency so they aren’t expected to respond to infinite levels of demand under open-ended block contracts. They need national benchmarks, targets and some form of payment by results, otherwise bids for increased funding will continue to be trumped by those for diseases such as cancer or heart disease, where there are a wealth of measurements. This was promised by the last Labour government in 2005 and by the coalition in 2010. It appears again in this manifesto; if the Lib Dems help to form the next coalition, will we be third time lucky?
Here are Royal College of Psychiatrists’ President Professor Sir Simon Wessely and Time to Change ambassador Alastair Campbell explaining why in their view, when it comes to mental illness and mental health care and support, government actions speak louder than words.
It’s not just the 1:4 of us who experience mental illness who should carefully consider these promises and those made by each of the other political parties. 4:4 of us will be voting on May 7th, or rather, we have the right to vote that others have died to get for us. This will apparently be the closest election in a lifetime. We have the greatest ever diversity of candidates. If we don’t each exercise our democratic right, we risk allowing those more certain than us about matters as important as mental health to decide who will run the country.
According to pundits, the outcome of the election is likely to be another coalition with at least two parties. This time, whoever forms the new government, I intend to make a fuss right from the beginning about funding and evidence-based support for mental health services. The more of us who do, the more they will realise that we mean business.
The recent dog-whistle headlines about the aircrash co-pilot show that we have a way to go in tackling the stigma of mental illness. So please ignore Russell Brand and vote; being disenfranchised would be really bad for our mental health.