Staff at Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
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The UK’s mental health care is in crisis – the next government must act urgently

Mentally ill patients forced to travel hundreds of miles for treatment, forcible sectioning in order to get beds and medical students begging for greater teaching on psychiatry: we're not getting it right

A report this week was grim reading for those involved in mental health care. The survey of GPs revealed that one in five had seen patients harmed as a result of “delays or a lack of support” from mental health services, while shortfalls had forced 82 per cent of doctors to act “outside of their competence”. While this news is shocking, it is just another example of the UK’s mental health care crisis.

Just last week, data obtained from freedom of information requests led to claims that the NHS treated mental health care as a “second-class service”. Indeed, thousands of mentally ill patients have been forced to travel “hundreds of miles” for treatment in recent years. Extreme cases have seen patients being forcibly sectioned so that they can receive care in overcrowded wards. Even medical students have resorted to asking for greater teaching on psychiatry, highlighting the derisory attention that mental health issues receive. Yet the state of mental health services is unsurprising considering that they receive only 13 per cent of the NHS budget, despite mental illness affecting around a quarter of the UK population.

Worse still, national spending on mental health has consistently decreased over the past three years. And the trend isn’t limited to adult care; mental health services for children and adolescents have also seen a fall in funding. This decline seems even more irrational considering adolescence is the period when many mental illnesses first manifest, and that hospitals are recording a rise in hospital admissions for conditions such as eating disorders.

The budget cuts have had a noticeable impact, with doctors citing the changes as a cause of “avoidable deaths and suicides,” while mental health organisations claimed that the cuts “put lives at risk”. Mental illness also has a significant impact on a patient’s quality of life, and is thought to contribute to poor physical health, having been associated with diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease. As well as the ethical concerns of these cases, such neglect of the mentally ill also has practical implications; a report by the London School of Economics found that the NHS could save over £50m a year by reversing budget cuts to preventative and early intervention therapies.

Yet perhaps the most striking aspect of the decrease in funding comes from the comparison with other areas of health care. The government, for instance, took great pride in announcing that the Cancer Drugs Fund would be ring-fenced until 2016. While it would be wrong to question the severity of diseases such as cancer, it is worth considering that this budget is reserved for treatments that aren’t ordinarily commissioned because they are not cost-effective. Given the nature of the NHS’s funding crisis, it seems unfair to fund relatively inefficient treatments, while the NHS’s most vulnerable patients are left without basic care.

This is the problem. Eager to brand their “reform” of the NHS as good for patients, the coalition has protected the emotive areas of health care that already benefit from public awareness. Aware that severely cutting the budget for paediatrics or cancer care would result in public outrage, the government are cynically withdrawing care from those most lacking a voice in society: the mentally ill.

Although this current crisis is alarming, such disregard of mental health isn’t a recent phenomenon. Plagued by a history of taboo and prejudice, mental health care has historically been chronically underfunded. With a media happy to brand mentally ill people as “psychos” and a threat to society, it has been relatively easy for politicians to excuse this injustice. But public perceptions are changing; a report by the charity Rethink Mental Illness found that public understanding and tolerance of mentally ill people is improving, while 63 per cent were aware of a close friend having a mental health problem.

This is important; for a politician to stand up for mental health care now wouldn’t just be a principled action, it’d be a popular one. With time, and the excellent work of campaign groups, this positive trend in public attitudes will only continue, allowing society to grow in confidence to discuss one of our greatest health challenges. The mental health charity Mind suggests that the next government commits to a 10 per cent rise in the NHS’s mental health budget over the next five years. Considering the state of mental health care and the current funding disparity between health services, this is not an unreasonable request.

Past governments have chosen an area of health care to focus on, in order to target voter demographics. In 1999, Blair announced his “crusade against cancer”. Seeking the “grey vote”, David Cameron called for a “national challenge” to beat neurological diseases such as dementia. But the disgrace of the NHS’s mental health provision goes beyond party politics. Regardless of who wins the general election, the next government must embrace bold reform to end our longstanding neglect of the mentally ill. 

George Gillett is a freelance journalist and medical student. He is on Twitter @george_gillett and blogs here.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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