Tight budgets mean mental healthcare isn’t a possibility for millions in Britain. Photo: Flickr/Lee Haywood
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Austerity is making life unbearable for those with mental health conditions

Strangulation of funds has seen the NHS Mental Health Trusts lose £253m, 2.3 per cent of their funding.

The core ideal of the NHS, that makes it so beloved by British people, is its promise of healthcare free for all. That promise has now become incompatible with the reality of austerity.

By 2020, the NHS will require an extra £30bn just to keep services at their present level. This strangulation of funds has seen the NHS Mental Health Trusts lose £253m, 2.3 per cent of their funding. These cuts translate into a dramatic loss of vital support for those with mental health conditions.

Half of early intervention programmes targeted at young people have been cut. The LSE estimates 30,000 people with mental health conditions have lost their social care, while 1,700 beds have been cut. Over a fifth of doctors said they had sent a child over 200 miles away from their families for treatment, and a similar number admitted sectioning people just to get them a bed. There are huge regional disparities too, as Birmingham City Council reduced its budget for adult mental health by an incredible 94 per cent.

Austerity has left the mental healthcare system in tatters. With all these cuts, universal healthcare at the point of need in Britain is now a myth. Less than a third of people with common mental health conditions get any treatment whatsoever, while only a third of people with illnesses as serious as psychosis and schizophrenia are on treatment.

I suffer from severe and chronic depression. When I moved to Brighton as a student, I suffered a breakdown, and after encouragement from a close friend, sought help. I was told that it would take at least three months to receive any treatment. For me, like millions of other people in Britain, mental healthcare wasn’t a possibility. The charity Mind have called this "a disgrace", while Rethink Mental Illness called it "scandalous", yet austerity is due to continue whoever wins the next general election, with Labour pledging to keep to Tory cuts after 2015.

Much of austerity falls on local government, who spend most of their budgets on social care. As early as 2011, just a year into the coalition, four out of every five councils scrapped care for people with "low" or "moderate" disability needs, an added punishment for people with the most debilitating mental health conditions.

But austerity doesn’t just take away people’s support. It causes poor mental health too. Academics are now coming to the conclusion that austerity translates into a death sentence for some. Stephen Platt, Emeritus Professor of Health Policy Research at Edinburgh University, says, "the rise in suicide in the UK wasn’t inevitable. On the contrary, it was the consequence of a deliberate policy choice: that of austerity." According to research he cites by Samaritans, those in the poorest communities are ten times more likely to take their own life than the affluent. Austerity is at its core a class issue, choosing to privilege the right of the wealthy to pay less tax ahead of the right of poorer communities to a basic standard of mental healthcare.

The slogan of our resistance should be this: austerity kills. We need to make the simple case that policy-makers have a choice: either they clamp down on tax avoidance of £70bn, put banks under democratic control like the TUC demands, or people will continue to suffer mental distress and commit suicide in a Britain where governments prioritise the defence of the wealthy over the rights of those of us with mental health conditions, to receive the treatment we need and deserve.

James Elliott is on the National Executive of the National Union of Students, and represents disabled students in the UK. 

James Elliott is Deputy Editor at Left Futures. He tweets @JFGElliott.

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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