This month the Prime Minister, David Cameron, delivered a speech about life chances which included 'new' funding to improve mental health services. At the beginning of his speech, the Prime Minister stated that "our society can't be strong and cohesive as long as there are millions of people who feel locked out of it," a sentiment I completely agree with. However, I don't believe that these proposals are going to help the millions of people who are currently isolated by their mental illnesses.
One of the proposals that Mr Cameron mentioned was "introducing the first ever waiting time standard" for teenagers currently battling eating disorders, ensuring more of them can be seen within the first month of being referred (this goes down to a week in "urgent cases").
Anyone with a mental illness can tell you that waiting times are notoriously long and so a shorter wait time would be very welcome. But it does beg the question: why only teenagers with eating disorders?
Anorexia is often called the most deadly mental illness, and any support given to those living with it is clearly a good thing. However, just over 1% of people in the UK are living with an eating disorder whereas approximately 25% are currently mentally ill. The Prime Minister himself said that "up to 1 in 4 of us will have a problem - perhaps depression or anxiety - this year alone," so what is being done for these millions of people?
Most are forced to wait months for specialist care, and, unfortunately, many will be left with care that is far from "specialist" or even helpful. Even within mental health services, there can be complete ignorance about the illnesses these professionals are expected to treat; I personally know of several people who have been told that they cannot be helped who are then sent away with minimal support. A similar concern about sub-standard care arises in relation to a "guarantee that more than half of patients with psychosis - the most serious cases - will be treated within two weeks." Again, shorter waiting times is a great thing, but what standard of treatment will they actually be given?
Despite these concerns there are many positive aspects of the proposals, one of which is to raise the profile of less talked about mental illnesses i.e. some of which cause psychosis. Therefore it's wonderful that people with lesser-known illnesses are being included in this widespread discussion on mental health. Similarly the Prime Minister's recognition of new mothers who are struggling with ante and post natal depression is also good way of raising awareness and hopefully reducing the stigma which surrounds them and all those with mental illnesses.
A problematic aspect this speech raises however, is the issue of funding. The specific focus on certain groups risks alienating the millions who suffer from more common forms of mental illness (like depression and mixed anxiety) who were not mentioned in the speech. At times it seems as though mental health services have to compete for funding in a way which cancer care doesn't. For example, no one would take money away from brain cancer research to give to that of lung cancer, so why is the funding for mental health services so specific? Both brain and lung cancer can be deadly, just like both depression and anorexia can be, and yet both of the physical illnesses receive ample funding (without intense scrutiny of the death rates) while it almost seems like the mental illnesses are forced to compete for the money, further highlighting former Health Minister Norman Lamb's point that the allocation of this funding "will leave a disparity between physical health and mental health at the heart of our NHS."
Similarly, the announcement of 'new' funding for mental health services is misleading; the money Mr Cameron mentioned was actually announced last March and was simply being allocated in his speech, further upsetting people who believed it to be extra funding. The Prime Minister's hopes that the funding will help to "equal" the services and treatment provided is admirable but unrealistic. However, hopefully, it can go some way to improving the standard of care in places.
For example, the extra funding for psychiatric liaison services in A&E departments is very welcome. Instead of being sent home after hours of waiting, many people who are in serious crises may well receive good care from professionals who have the resources to provide it, and that will never be a bad thing.
This is also the same for Crisis Resolution and Home Treatment teams (a team of specialists who work on caring for people in mental health crises in their homes and communities), although they already do run 24/7, an extra £400 million will hopefully help them reach more people in desperate need of their help, and help free up space in hospitals for those people who need more intensive care.
However, it is disappointing that the money is currently being allocated to places that people consider a last resort. When really struggling with suicidal thoughts, for example, people go to A&Es as they feel like there is no other place that they can go. So while the extra funding and improvement of these services is a good thing, it is a shame that we are at a stage where that is most needed and that former steps, such as regular therapy or even mental health being taught (at a decent standard) in all schools, isn't getting an increase in resources this time, and I hope that the next round of funding will provide that.
I will forever be an advocate for therapy as it helped me significantly; my clinical psychologist was a lifeline; but it can still be hit or miss, which needs to be improved as anyone who has access to therapy deserves a useful and good experience.
When I started therapy, my anxiety and depression were very intense and I hadn't been able to leave the house for months. A number of these months were spent on a waiting list for therapy and all of them were spent thinking about how I would never get better/be able to function at a decent standard again. However, with the support of my family and my clinical psychologist I did get better.
Now, I'm not going to pretend that therapy is a magical cure, because it isn't. It's hard work and scary but it's also something that everyone struggling with a mental illness deserves a good experience of.
During his speech, Mr Cameron talked about how the majority of people are able to look back and highlight a person or people who they can say is "the person who really found my passion. They're the one's who really made the difference for me"; I believe this should be the case for everyone with a mental health problem who accesses professional services. I'm very fortunate to be able to say it about my clinical psychologist but I know this isn't the case for everyone.
With the right treatment, mental illnesses can get better. The right treatments do need proper funding, and while this is a start, it won't help all of us "1 in 4." Until then, we've got to keep the "frank and open discussion" going; we all have the power to improve somebody's circumstances by fighting against stigma and discrimination; our own, our loved ones', a strangers'... The more noise we make, the more the government is going to take notice, so it's important to fight that fight. However we must not forget that 25% of us are already fighting with our minds and so even the smallest act of kindness and understanding is important, and doesn't require a penny of funding.
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