Sunday the 17th of May marked the finale of the annual UK Mental Health Awareness Week. With the public understandably preoccupied with the recent election result, Shout Out UK asks: what could the somewhat unexpected Conservative majority mean for the UK’s growing hordes of mentally ill residents?
Coming soon to a clinic near you will be sustained austerity and further cuts to mental health budgets, which have been cut by 8 per cent in England since 2010, despite a 20 per cent rise in demand for care.
Somewhat conservative predictions of a further 8 per cent in cuts over the next five years will place more pressure on an increasingly emaciated service. Yet the correlation between austerity and insanity stretches beyond the financial; cutbacks generally produce poverty, fear, isolation, mistrust and loneliness, all of which collectively treble the chance of a clinical depression diagnosis.
These notions have broad and sophisticated support. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman posited that austerity actually constrains economic development, rather than encourages it. The Conservative Party has sought stopgaps and short-term fixes. What is dangerous is their general failure to consider the inevitable future burden that cuts will produce in five to ten years, when large swathes of vulnerable citizens find only closed doors in their search for psychological support.
This reflects a general crusade against considerations of public health in the UK. Local authorities are a prime example since the Coalition government delegated responsibility for public health to them. The result: short of money and resources for public health initiatives, authorities are forced to sublet commercial spaces to the highest bidder. The Subways, McDonalds and Burger Kings that inevitably fulfil this condition directly offset any public health proposals.
Returning to the issue at hand, Mind surveyed individuals who have been privy in recent times to psychological therapies and treatments. Their findings were distressing. One in ten sufferers were forced to wait over twelve months for treatment, and more than half waited over three months. Furthermore, nearly three-fifths were denied a preference about the type of therapy that they received, which flies in the face of accepted philosophies about specific therapies for specific individuals.
These outcomes will be confounded by a lack of Liberal Democrat influence: their invisible but steadying hand. This was the party that promised £500 million a year to halt discrimination against the mentally ill through access to services, care improvements, investment in youth mental health, prevention and research.
The Health Foundation’s Chief Economist, Anita Charlesworth, recently stated: ‘what we are seeing is potentially real-terms resources falling, against a backdrop of growing need’. The situation for Britain’s mentally ill is grave. With the doors of the presumably soundproofed Cabinet room shut over the last five years, we cannot discern the full extent of the Liberal Democrats’ influence. I argue that their influence as a force of restraint was larger than has been acknowledged, though current university students may justifiably differ. Certainly in the sphere of mental health, Liberal Democrat Minister for Care and Support, Norman Lamb – having abetted his own son in his battle against mental illness – proved to be a vocal critic of the institutional biases that infect the current setup. His voice will henceforth be substantially less audible.
The Greens were fairly strong on mental health issues, but again our somewhat faulty electoral system has reduced their voice to that of Caroline Lucas. Under a proportional system they would have gained an estimated 27 Commons seats. Labour lacked courage, but general assumptions about their more humane, caring and less belligerently fiscal approach seem cogent.
Ultimately, dealing with the mentally ill requires compassion, both personally and institutionally. What we – as a nation – have thus far failed to do is establish a genuine recognition of the seriousness of mental illness; the clinically insane are persistently derided and dismissed. I do not embellish my own compassion; I too was a ‘nonbeliever’ until the botched suicide of a close family member jolted me from my position of psychological privilege.
Ongoing institutional biases are decidedly damaging to the thousands of mentally ill people pounding Britain’s streets. Roughly, a £1 billion permanent increase in the NHS mental health budget is required to reverse the damage caused by decades of neglect and cuts. What remains astonishingly clear is that this problem, like the lion’s share of mental illness itself, will not go away on its own.