In July 2012, a group of MPs caught the media's attention when they began talking about their personal battles with mental ill health during a debate on the topic in the House of Commons. The first to speak was Charles Walker, the Conservative MP for Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, who had spoken before about his obsessive compulsive disorder. The debate was proceeding as expected when suddenly the former Labour defence minister Kevan Jones put down his notes and unexpectedly admitted to a history of serious depression.
Bolstered by the positive atmosphere, two more Tory MPs also spoke: former GP Sarah Wollaston, who has experienced depression, postnatal depression and severe anxiety attacks, and ex-City banker Andrea Leadsom, who has also gone through postnatal depression. Thanks to their efforts, #Mentalhealthdebate soon began trending on Twitter. Their stigma busting admission of mental ill health was both bold and laudable, but two years on what effect has this political 'awareness raising' had on the mental health care landscape in the UK? Predictably, the answer is 'virtually none'.
At the time, Walker in particular was hailed as a hero for speaking out about his illness and raising awareness of mental ill health, yet conversely in the last four years his party have presided over deeply damaging cuts to both mental health crisis units and community mental health teams. What's more, since 2011 there has been a 30% reduction in the number of mental health beds available in the NHS. In this deeply worrying article by Guardian journalist Amelia Gentleman about an overstretched West London mental health crisis unit (published in March this year) a senior nurse complains that the trust's mental health teams have been so radically cut and restructured over the past two years that it is her view that "people will die".
A few months after his confessional, stigma busting speech, Walker was interviewed by the Guardian. When asked about improvements in access to mental health care, Walker said he 'believed the government is on the case and matters are slowly improving', though he conceded this is based on anecdotal cases involving constituents where he has actively intervened. He also stated that he wholeheartedly backs the benefit 'reforms': "We have to cut our cloth to fit and, unfortunately, cutting money is never easy and there have to be people who are left worse off as a result."
In a recent survey, 90% of chief executives working with the mental health charity Mind recently said benefit cuts were partly responsible for the increase in demand for mental health services. It's impossible to ignore the fact that these cuts- backed by one of the MPs who were happy to talk about their own mental health issues- are causing more people to fall into a black hole of fear, anxiety and depression, while similar cuts to the NHS are preventing less well off people from accessing treatment.
Talking therapies remain painfully hard to access on the NHS, though a recent report states that the use of antidepressants has risen significantly in England during the recession, with 12.5m more pills prescribed in 2012 than in 2007. When I visited my GP in 2012 due to depression and anxiety, I was told it 'wasn't possible' to refer me for counselling or CBT on the NHS due to lengthy waiting lists in my area, and if I wanted those therapies I would have to pay for them. She did, however, prescribe the antidepressant citalopram.
Even the deeply unwell people discussed in Amelia Gentleman's Guardian article are not always given access to talking therapies. The mental health team in question visit a woman who recently made a plan to kill herself. We are told that she "cries throughout the meeting, silently. This patient, too, is aware that there are long waiting lists that stand between her and the treatment she hopes to have. "I'd like to talk to someone about the things that are worrying me. I was told it would take a few months for psychology appointments," she says. They acknowledge that there is a wait, and ask her if she has the money to go private; she says she will think about it."
More and more people who can afford private mental health treatment and counselling are choosing to go down that road rather than waiting up to a year for a counselling appointment (if you can convince your GP to add you to the waiting list, that is). Although private mental health care doesn't necessarily have to break the bank, people on benefits- particularly those who have been sanctioned- can't afford even a small fee, meaning that many people who desperately need help have been roundly kicked to the curb by a complete lack of equality when it comes to mental health service provision.
In a recent interview, Chris Cordell, Hospital Director of private mental health and addiction support company Life Works said: "in recent years we have seen a large increase in the number of people self-referring for support with mental health issues, particularly with anxiety and depression conditions, citing issues with lengthy NHS waiting times as their main reason for doing so. This is certainly something we've seen change since 2010."
It's great that some politicians have spoken out in an attempt to dispel some of the stigma around mental ill health, but it is deeply unethical to pretend to champion mental health care while simultaneously backing swingeing cuts to both the welfare safety blanket and NHS mental health services, two things that vulnerable people desperately need if we're to avoid a nationwide mental health crisis; although many health professionals claim that crisis is already well under way.