Last week at PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn challenged Theresa May over the Conservative's record on mental health spending. He was referring to a report produced by The Kings Fund, who estimated that around 40% of mental health trusts have faced year-on-year budget cuts since 2011. Research conducted by the BBC confirmed that between 2011 and 2015, mental health trust budgets were cut by 8.25% across the country, while at the same time, demand for mental health services has increased by around 20%.
The figures are damning but even more so are the real stories of people affected by the cuts. Take, for example, the experience of Sascha, a 16-year-old girl kept in an adult psychiatric ward for three months recently due to a lack of beds in Cornwall, surrounded by terminally ill patients and people suffering from dementia. There has been a 10% increase in the past year of children like Sascha being forced to stay on adult mental health wards due to a lack of beds.
The usage of section 136 powers - which allow the police to detain people under the Mental Health Act - has also increased by 50%in the past 10 years, as people who are mentally unwell are increasingly being kept in police cells at risk of further harm until a bed becomes available. In Exeter, a 26-year-old homeless woman who had been the victim of a sexual assault was held by police in Exeter over the weekend awaiting transfer. In another case in 2015, also in Exeter, a man was kept in prison for nine months due to a lack of beds available in the south-west of England. He had been diagnosed as needing immediate psychiatric care by the two doctors who examined him shortly after his arrest.
Hospitals, already overwhelmed with physical health demands, are dealing with an increase in mental health admissions due to a lack of other services available. People suffering from a mental health condition are three times more likely to present at A&E than the general population. But the Care Quality Commission found in 2015 that A&E departments are not fit to cope with people experiencing a mental health crisis and that current responses are 'unsafe' and 'unacceptable'.
At the same time, researchers at Oxford and Liverpool Universities have established clear links between the changes to out-of-work disability benefits under the Tories and an increase in the number of cases of mental illness. They estimate that the fit-to-work tests highlighted in the new Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake have resulted in 590 additional suicides and 279,000 cases of mental illness across the country.
These additional cases, while being completely avoidable, have received no extra funding from the Conservative government. In fact, the government has been doing the opposite - cutting community mental health by 4.9% under David Cameron's leadership and reducing local authority spending by £200m last year. Despite the government's pledge to place mental health on an equal footing as physical health, FOIs conducted by the charity Mind found that local authorities are allocating on average only 1% of their public health budgets going towards preventing mental illness. That is despite mental health problems accounting for 23% of all disease in the UK.
The most worrying pressures are upon CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services). The number of children and adolescents affected by mental health problems is a growing concern; with the NSPCC alone dealing with 92,981 cases last year, of which 5,644 also involved abuse or neglect. Children experiencing depression or who are self-harming are some of our most vulnerable members of society, but increasingly they are finding that the mental health services which should support them are oversubscribed. Research conducted by the NSPCC found that 1 in 6 children referred to CAHMS services were turned away last year. These children, whose care needs are being ignored by the government, are far more likely to turn to substance misuse, criminal or suicidal behaviour.
Much of the investment which could reduce the number of instances of mental illness in children is being reduced under the Conservatives. The Early Intervention Grant, for example, is set to be cut by 60% by 2020 under the government's existing plans - it has already been cut by over 50% since it was established in 2010. An independent report carried out in 2011 argued that Early Intervention was "low in cost, high in results ... [and] has significant implications for levels of physical, emotional and mental health, individual achievement and violent crime." Over 750 Sure Start centres which were also aimed at giving people the best start in life have also been closed since 2010.
These cuts are taking place against a backdrop of increased numbers of cases of child abuse and neglect. Self-harming figures have doubled in the past 10 years, which NHS England believes is linked to social pressures and body-image fears, as well as children being subjected to sexual, physical and emotional abuse. Tragically, many of these children won't survive their traumatic experiences. One in four young people experience suicidal thoughts, and suicide is the single largest killer of men under 45 in the UK. What is also clear is that it is society's most vulnerable people who are most affected, with young people from BAME and LGBT groups disproportionately at risk of self-harm or suicide.
Contrary to the government's claims of investing in mental health, austerity measures have contributed to the creation of a mental health crisis. Due to year-on-year budget cuts across impatient and community services, as well as a decrease in funding aimed at prevention such as the Early Intervention Grant and Sure Start, mental health services have become overwhelmed and are now failing to provide safe and adequate care across the country. The sufferers of mental illnesses are being increasingly left to deal with their conditions on their own instead of being offered the medical treatment which they desperately need.
Bryan Blears is a member of the Labour Campaign for Mental Health
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