Are those with mental health conditions meant to be jumping for joy at Nick Clegg’s announcement today that a target would be set that all sufferers will have access to talking therapies within eighteen weeks should the current coalition find themselves still in power after the next election? This will, apparently, mean that around £120m of extra funding (more about the “extra” later) will be spent over the next two years – this will, I guess, go towards restoring some of the funding that has been cut over the last four years since the coalition has been in power.
For me, the whole thing smacks of empty rhetoric, grave naivety and a cynical touting for votes. No-one is going to moan that waiting times are going to be cut or that more spending on mental health will take place, but the ridiculous simplicity with which mental health is being treated is rather insulting to those who are suffering from these conditions. It’s thought that up to 10% of sufferers die as a direct or indirect result of their condition. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50 in the UK. If those stats were related to a form of cancer, there would be a considerable outcry if a waiting time for treatment was reduced to eighteen weeks. Reduced. God knows how long the wait must be now if you’re not one of the lucky few who lives in the right postcode.
The lack of understanding of mental illness by those spouting these latest wonders is only too evident with the announcement that suicidal patients will get the same priority as those with a suspected heart attack. That’s all very nice, but people with a suspected heart attack ring 999 – people who are suicidal do not. Suffering from a mental health condition for up to eighteen weeks without access to certain treatment might be enough to turn someone suicidal in the first place. And there’s also this strange notion that people are either suicidal or they’re not – something which fails to take into account that people might be fine one day and not the next. That MPs are simplifying conditions in this way is insulting – the least they could do is try to understand the issue in the first place. But to do so, and to acknowledge the complexities doesn’t make for such rousing speech-writing.
And how about reviewing the benefits process for those with mental health conditions. The Personal Independence Payment form might give an indication of how serious a physical disability is, but it’s a joke when it comes to mental health, with half of the questions not even applying to people with depression, schizophrenia, bipolar, and the like. Can we use the loo? Well, yes, thank you very much – but why aren’t you asking us about issues of concentration that prevent us doing things, or panic attacks that might stop us going to a supermarket. And, wait for this one folks, if you can’t use public transport due to your condition you might be awarded a free bus pass. I kid you not.
Charities have welcomed today’s news – they have little choice: more funding is better than funding cuts, no matter how modest the targets that have been set. Just six weeks ago, The Independent ran a story stating that mental health services are “dangerously close to collapse,” and that there were 3000 less nurses working in the sector than two years earlier. 57 mental health trusts had lost £253m in funding. And yet we should be saying “well done” and “how wonderful” to the coalition for promising to put half of that money back. That’s hardly “extra funding.”
I confess that I have been lucky during the twenty years I have had my own condition. When I first fell ill, I got to see a doctor within hours (this was 1995 when you could do that) and, since then, I have always been treated by my succession of GPs with respect, concern and (thankfully) good humour. The last in that list might seem like an odd addition, but actually it highlights the importance of striking up a rapport with your GP, especially with regards to mental health conditions where, more than ever, everyone is different. I have a great relationship with my GP, not least because she knows I’m more than willing to find the humour within the issues that I have. It’s the way I get through. Another doctor wouldn’t get or understand that.
The problem is that seeing your own GP (including my own) is not that easy anymore. Often the waiting time to see your regular doctor these days is two weeks, not two hours. If I had a severe turn for the worse with my illness, would I even contemplate seeing a doctor I didn’t know? Probably not – and with good reason: notes on a screen are not the same as talking to someone who has seen how your condition has changed (or not) over a number of years. Mental health conditions aren’t a series of test results, facts and figures, where X+Y = medication A. It’s far more complicated than that – which is why some of the rhetoric used by Nick Clegg today comes across as so naive.
Any increase in mental health budgets is to be welcomed, but it shouldn’t have got this bad in the first place – and the amount of money involved doesn’t get close to making up for the cuts from the budgets over the last few years. And, while Clegg has said he wants to work to stamp out the stigma associated with such conditions, that promise seems very empty too. There are few, if any, signs of how he plans to do that. Does he mean well? Possibly. But, as with most things he does and says, his ineptness and lack of deep understanding of the problem is laughable or offensive, depending on your mood (swing).