Mental health services in this country, at their best, provide life-changing and occasionally life-saving, intuitive and highly professional care to people at what is certain to be one of the most vulnerable periods in their lives.
But growing numbers of my constituents are contacting me to tell me of their difficulty in accessing professional mental health services. What I’m hearing is that whilst mental health professionals the length and breadth of this country do a brilliant job, underinvestment, lengthy waiting lists and complex systems have placed a worrying level of pressure on services. Patients are waiting too long, services are too hard to access and there’s nothing more dismaying for people who have taken that brave step of seeking help to get lost in the system.
Recently I was contacted by a parent who – having been advised to do so by a mental health professional - was seeking a reassessment of her child. It soon became clear that in our convoluted system, this was far from easy. The parent was told that a reassessment wasn’t possible as the original assessment had been conducted within the last two years. Meanwhile, I heard that her son’s state deteriorated, to the point where she had to quit her job in order to provide full-time care – she was very concerned about the lack of care he had been receiving. The change in his mental health needs was simply not recognised by the current system. Clearly this is wrong. If a physical condition gets worse it gets reassessed and the correct treatment is given. Whilst the mental health professional recognised this, the system couldn’t provide.
In Sheffield, our Labour Council is working on an innovative project to join up services throughout the city. Plans include the priorities for spending the ‘Better Care Fund’ - which although other areas have similar funds, Sheffield’s is one of the largest and most comprehensive. Plans for the fund aim to close down the question of who pays for a patient, and open up the question of how is that patient best cared for. If successful, this could have a huge impact on mental health care in the city.
But this doesn’t go far enough on integrating services. We need a national approach, right across the country, integrating the budgets for physical health, mental health and care needs. It would be the first step in developing a comprehensive health and care system that helps a patient’s overall wellbeing, with mental health and mental illness given true parity of esteem with physical health.
Of course, under the Tories, budgets for mental health services have been drastically cut back. Many services up and down the country have shrunk, closed or have had to change dramatically. It’s obvious that cutting services could push those with mental health conditions into crisis - leading to emergency care, usually in A&E. We’ve even seen thousands of incidents where patients end up in police cells due to the strain on specialist services.
It’s a classic example of the Tories’ flawed logic. You don’t save money by ignoring problems. You save money by solving problems.
The vision of a National Health and Social Care Service that Andy Burnham has put forward as our Shadow Health Secretary would start doing that, and enable patients to access the services they need. No one benefits from a fragmented and strained health care service and no one benefits when patients get lost in the system. We in the Labour Party should be making this case loud and clear.
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