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Protest against NHS cuts, Norwich 2013

Protest against NHS cuts, Norwich 2013. Photo: Roger Blackwell / Flickr / CC BY 2.0, license linked below article

Tory cuts to mental health services are driving the mental health crisis and failing the very people who need the most support, writes Lucette Davies

Last week was Child Mental Health Awareness Week. But all around the country children and young people are on waiting lists for treatment. They can be sent hundreds of miles from their home to get a bed, while others rely on the support of teachers to survive. Just as shocking as the abysmal failures of our services to deal with the demand for help, is the fact that so few people are actually making demands on our politicians to rectify this situation.

The nation’s mental health has deteriorated during the pandemic, but the services were already in crisis before Covid-19 came along. The prevalence of mental-health problems in the UK had increased by 20% from 1993 to 2014. People’s mental health continues to worsen and services nonetheless continue to be slashed. We now have a crisis on top of a crisis, and we should all be screaming from the rooftops about this.

There are probably hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people (in February this year, it was reported that more than a million UK adults reported first-time mental-health issues) suffering with mental-health problems who are just desperate for the rest of the population to care about what is happening to them. I know because I was, for many years, dependant on hopelessly inadequate mental-health services. I would so often long for the rest of the world to care about what was happening, or even to find out what was happening. And I wasn’t alone with this.

The cost of cutting services

There are many amazing people who work in our psychiatric system. There are some inpatient units that are much better than others (in my experiences they were usually the NHS units rather than the private units the NHS placed me in). But the whole system is broken and dysfunctional. It reduced me to feeling I somehow deserved all the pain I suffered. I couldn’t speak out then because the services along with the illness I suffered had sapped every ounce of self-confidence from me.

I now realise my condition had begun to develop as a child. I was lucky enough to not miss any education because of it, but I am horrified to hear teachers now talking about how prevalent mental illness is amongst their pupils. Those childhood years are precious and irreplaceable. I am desperately trying to pack into my life all the experiences I have missed out on when ill. But you can’t as an adult have a catch up on the childhood experiences you missed.

I often think about how much easier it would have been to resolve my problems had they been addressed in childhood. Mental-health problems will only become more entrenched the longer they are left untreated. The amount of money that must have been spent on my care; the suffering I caused my family who witnessed my illness; the physical disabilities I have been left with; the amount of money I have claimed in benefits, and the taxes the country would not have lost had I been well enough to work. With early intervention, this could have all been avoided.

So now young people in the East Sussex area where I live are telling me there is a minimum eighteen-month waiting list simply for treatment. One young man described the experience of moving from CAMHS to adult services as ‘like being thrown into the wild’, and was something he was still recovering from six years later. Teachers I know have talked about how psychiatric problems are now epidemic in our schools. So can we, everyone who is able to, start speaking up and demanding something better?

A growing crisis

Here are some statistics from Young Minds about mental health in our young people:

  • One in six children aged five to sixteen were identified as having a probable mental-health problem in July 2020: a huge increase from one in nine in 2017. That’s five children in every classroom.
  • The number of A&E attendances by young people aged eighteen or under with a recorded diagnosis of a psychiatric condition more than tripled between 2010 and 2018-19.
  • 80% of young people with mental-health needs agreed that the coronavirus pandemic had made their mental-health worse.
  • In 2018-19, 24% of seventeen-year olds reported having self-harmed in the previous year, and 7% reported having self-harmed with suicidal intent at some point in their lives, while 16% reported high levels of psychological distress.
  • Suicide was the leading cause of death for males and females aged between five and 34 in 2019.
  • Nearly half of seventeen to nineteen-year olds with a diagnosable mental-health disorder have self-harmed or attempted suicide at some point, rising to 52.7% for young women.

Adult services are even more under-resourced than CAMHS, offering far less to the few who filter through the referrals process to access minimal treatment. However, if we get the CAMHS services right, it will take pressure off the adult services who are so often dealing with patients who should have been treated as young people.

I have recently written a column for a local news website about staffing issues in our NHS. I am deeply shocked by the many NHS staff who have talked about stress and depression. One staff member told me our NHS is being ‘majorly driven by anxiety now’.  This has to come right, but one nurse told me she had been diagnosed with PTSD, but then offered no treatment other than being told to ‘get more fresh air’. This is all unacceptable and will greatly affect our country’s ability to recover post pandemic. It is also inhumane.

Psychiatric services rely heavily on the use of beds in private-sector hospitals. Profit interferes with care in every aspect of health. Once profit is involved, decisions start to be influenced by the need to maximise profit, rather than what is best for the patient.

However, in psychiatry I am not alone is suspecting that the reluctance to provide non-pharmaceutical therapies is influenced by the cosy relationship big pharma has always had with our governments. Social problems are major drivers of mental illness, and until we fix the social problems, we can’t fix the mental-health crisis. But that will take time and we don’t have time. We all need to demand far greater resources to tackle this mental-health crisis, particularly in CAMHS. And far more thought needs to be put into how best this is achieved.

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Lucette Davies

Lucette Davies

Lucette is a People's Assembly activist, member of Counterfire and founder of East Sussex Save the NHS

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