Mind the gap: mental health funding in the NHS

By Daniel Hadley

Politicians of all parties have been paying lip service to mental health in recent years. Along with celebrities from Stormzy to Prince Harry, they have added their voices to campaigns aiming to reduce stigma and encourage people with mental health problems to talk about them and to seek help. And whether as the result of such campaigns or not, the number of people seeking help for mental health conditions is indeed rising. Yet, despite the rhetoric, people who do heed the calls to access mental health services will find them sorely lacking.

Parity of esteem remains a buzzword rather than a reality, with MH conditions representing over a fifth of UK disease burden yet only receiving 13% of funding, and budgets slashed by 8% between 2011 and 2016. We demand adequate and equitable funding for mental health care.

The results of these cuts are numerous. Waiting lists for psychotherapy for common MH conditions such as anxiety and depression are long, with 20-30% of people in 2015-16 waiting more than 6 weeks for therapy, and around 5% waiting more than 18 weeks.

Meanwhile, the bar for accessing stretched secondary care services is continually raised, meaning that people with severe mental illness have to reach crisis point before they are seen, rather than receiving early help that could prevent deterioration. There is a shortage of beds nationwide, meaning that acutely unwell children and adults are forced to travel hundreds of miles away from their homes and their support networks to receive inpatient care. We believe patients have a right to timely access to local services.

In 2015, the Conservatives pledged an extra £1.4 billion to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS), yet FOI requests have revealed that much of this is being diverted to plug funding gaps elsewhere in the health service, and over half of CCGs are cutting CAMHS funding this year. The result of this is a fifth of children referred for mental health care being turned away. Claims of extra funding for mental health are trumpeted, but often are either not actually new money or are inadequate. We recommend that voters think critically about politicians’ claims to be taking mental health seriously, and make sure that soundbites are backed up with policy and funding commitments.

It’s not just about the NHS, but also the wider context of austerity and inequality. Although mental health problems can affect anyone, even the wealthiest, poverty is still a powerful predictor of poor mental health. This is especially true of childhood poverty, which can have an impact on mental health for the rest of someone’s life. Unemployment, homelessness, lack of education and low income are all risk factors for mental health problems. Harsher assessments and sanctions for benefit claimants have been linked to suicides, while precarity in work and housing is piling extra stress on vulnerable people. From cause to treatment, mental health is political.

In the run-up to the General Election, look at what politicians and parties are saying about mental health and what policies they promise, and question those who wish to represent you. When you go to the polls, cast a vote with the nation’s mental health in mind.

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