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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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.