Why Race is Still An Issue In Mental Health

07/10/2016 12:53

Mental health care should be equal to treatment for physical health problems- and just as accessible and available.

That's what the coalition government promised in 2014, followed this February by a £1billion annual cash pledge from NHS England over the next five years.

So it's concerning, as we mark World Mental Health Day, that only one in three people with a mental illness are getting treatment.

The new findings from the NHS Digital Adult Psychiatric Morbidity survey expose the ongoing disparity between support for physical and mental health issues.

And if you're black then you face the lowest treatment rates in England, nearly half that of white people.

This stark inequality was virtually ignored by the media in their coverage of the report, despite those from ethnic minorities being disproportionately affected by mental illness.

Take post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for example. Black adults are nearly twice as likely to be screened for this condition than white people, and black men are also more likely than other ethnic groups to suffer psychotic disorders.

Common conditions too such as depression are more prevalent among black and black British women (nearly 30%).

Of course, the fact that black people suffer the most- yet are least likely to get treatment- is sadly nothing new. It's been the case for decades because of a lack of focus and concerted action.

This iniquity reflects a deep-seated ambivalence about race and racism, that somehow issues affecting BME communities don't matter.

The picture it paints is one of misery, of desperate individuals needing help but being let down by the poor response from services, just because they're black.

Three years ago, I looked into cases of black people experiencing a mental health crisis as part of a wider review of how the Metropolitan police deals with mental health issues. What I found were lives lost and families left in despair just because the person in question was black.

We know that the demand for mental health services in general far exceeds supply. A need for increased resources in areas with high proportions of black inhabitants is highlighted by the Morbidity survey.

But this will only become reality if the government's new emphasis on investing in mental health is matched with transparency and expectation.

And it will only happen if we have services that improve the experience and outcomes of those groups that need support most, including BME groups.

Too often, it's a challenge for people to navigate their way through the services available, and the support that exists is often either patchy or inadequate.

Services must be properly funded and tailored to ensure individuals get the right care, when they need it.

A report published last month by the Public Accounts Committee has warned that, at the moment, the money is not there to improve services.

Funding shortfalls would make the 'laudable' ambition of putting mental health on an equal footing with physical health very difficult, say the MPs on the committee.

What is also a concern is the fact that the £1billion pledged by NHS England for mental health care is not ring-fenced.

We need a real and lasting commitment to end this shocking inequality where the NHS will fix your broken leg but not fix your broken mind, especially if you're black.

Nearly half of all ill health among people under 65 is mental illness, and mental health problems cost society and the economy more than £105billion a year.

So truly valuing and looking after the nation's mental health benefits us all. Having a mental illness does not mean living forever in despair.

Recovery is possible for the one in four of us who will develop a mental health issue. But only if we have a mental health service that is fit for the 21st century and meets everyone's needs equally.