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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.