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.