The state is still failing schizophrenia sufferers

Rethink's Schizophrenia Commission shows how a technocratic system is letting patients down.

Hundreds of thousands of carers will be delighted to hear of the publication today of the report of Rethink’s Schizophrenia Commission. Let me explain why.

The other month my friend was sectioned under the Mental Health Act. In anguish after redundancy and a double bereavement, she had begun to see dead bodies through car windows and threatening connections in all she read from the pavement, to the label on a tin of beans to the front page of the FT. She was terrified because constantly, just out her sight, she could sense the presence of someone who was going to do grave harm to her tiny children. Experiencing difficulties on the schizophrenic range of illnesses her family called the "emergency team". They arrived three days later. In the meantime she was admitted to a "specialist unit" having been taken in by her frantic husband after she’d sought to jump in front of a moving vehicle. Soon he got a phone call at home only to realise that the doctor at the other end of the line was talking about a different patient.  Placed on "constant observation" she was twice - and unmissed by the NHS  - found, mud covered, wandering barefoot near home some miles away.  My friend is just one of hundreds who have experienced poor care.

Rethink's report records that 250,000 of us will experience illnesses in the schizophrenic range. In practice that includes the rape victim whose auditory hallucinations mean her attacker will always be with her. It encompasses the lad who screams to his father in fear "are you really my Dad?" as he tries to make sense of the faces, colours and lights that he sees all about him. Not to mention the large number of kids from poorer backgrounds who seem to be disproportionately impacted by this particular form of severe mental ill health. They are not alone of course. Severe mental ill health affects 700,000 citizens and their families.  And in seeking to address their needs the exhaustion of the technocratic, inflexible welfare state is perhaps nowhere better demonstrated.

In city after city, there is now no out of hours social work if your child needs urgent help. Social services advise that you ring the police instead. And so you may soon find you are among the many parents who have ended up sleeping on a police cell floor alongside a family member with, say,  severe  Obsessive Compulsive Disorder while a drunken brawler crashes around next door.  That, or your employer may take to designing redundancy selection to remove you because you need to leave work early for a good while. Why? Well, the only place they could find for your son was a three hour drive away. And when he is in streams of tears from the unit’s phone you just know that you will have to find the petrol money from somewhere to make the six hour return drive for the one hour of visiting time that the nurses allow.  And even there you may encounter a row of doctors advising you that your child will be discharged weeks before you think it is safe to do so. What they cannot tell you is that their new Clinical Commissioning Group has demanded a "faster average churn rate". No wonder the state reaches for the mass produced response of life shortening, menstruation stopping, bone drying, heart pressure inducing, sight blurring, memory stealing, weight adding, medication with the gentle words "there will be some side effects".

Mental ill-health should be a defining political question of our times. It breaches the ramparts of houses, flats and castles in every class and region. It shatters even the strongest of families who set out to stand by their loved one who has become unwell.  And those who face it are the objects of the last respectable form of vicious discrimination: Watch the faces of A&E staff as they turn to admissions that have attempted suicide. Note that it is only this February that it became legal for someone who had been severely ill, and been long recovered, to become a school governor. Register that for eighteen months until last month a large local radio station ran a jingle "you’d have to be mad to work here but if you do we’ll section you" and thought that it was hysterically funny when I rang to ask "why?" Imagine a jingle that offered to lock up black, gay, Jewish or female listeners for being themselves?

And the hundreds of thousands of carers know exactly what I mean.

Francis Davis is a fellow at ResPublica and this week has contributed to Jon Cruddas MP’s Labour List series on One Nation politics.

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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.