Late one Sunday night five years ago, Kerry heard voices telling her she must set herself on fire. Terrified and desperate, the 27-year-old took herself to her local A&E. There, she was told they had no capacity to help her, and the best they could do was send someone from the mental health crisis team the next morning.
It is impossible to imagine someone experiencing any other kind of life-threatening health crisis – a heart attack, say – being turned away. Sadly, when it comes to mental illness, there is no shortage of stories like Kerry’s to highlight the dire lack of support.
But Monday’s NHS Mental Health Taskforce report has the potential to improve life for every single person affected by mental illness by transforming the services that are available.
The independent Mental Health Taskforce was set up in March 2015 by NHS England. Members of the Taskforce (which include people with experience of mental illness, social care leaders, and charities) have spent 11 months defining bold recommendations to shape the future of mental health care.
One of the key recommendations is for better access to high-quality services for everyone. It calls for new funding for community care to be accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in order to provide vital early intervention treatments. Currently too many people find themselves on long waiting lists to see a therapist (eight weeks is typical) despite evidence that talking therapies can prevent someone reaching crisis point.
“If I’d had that kind of support when I first had mental health problems I don’t think I’d have become so unwell,” says Kerry, who is now 32 and works as a scientist. “I wouldn’t have dropped out of Uni, or had a long period of unemployment. It would have changed the course of my whole life.”
The Taskforce also recommends training health professionals to better involve the family or friends who care for someone with mental illness. To be clear, this isn’t criticising unfeeling doctors and nurses, rather it highlights how an overstretched and underfunded NHS has struggled to do everything it might in order to achieve best outcomes.
Artist and filmmaker Alice says her parents were kept in the dark when she was hospitalised while experiencing psychosis.
“They weren’t given any information by medical professionals and felt uninvolved and unsure how to help me,” says Alice, now aged 38. “The illness deeply affects carers too, and including them in the recovery process is vital.”
Alice became a ‘revolving door’ patient, with three hospital admissions in two years, each stay lasting over a month. As if that wasn’t enough, anti-psychotic medication caused her to put on 10 stone in a year.
Weight gain is a common side effect of many pills prescribed to tackle mental illnesses, but it is often ignored by medical staff busy treating an individual’s mental health.
'By 2030 there will be approximately two million more adults in the UK with mental health problems...A quantum leap forward is required'
Alice says her physical health “wasn’t monitored at all”, and her immobility subsequently caused her to develop a chest infection and pneumonia which resulted in a 10-day stay in intensive care.
Thankfully, medication is another area the Taskforce addresses, recommending that people are more involved in decisions about their own treatment. Additionally, it advises that people with mental illness should receive help with their physical health through better screening and lifestyle support. Given that people with mental illness die on average 20 years early due to physical health problems, this reform can’t come soon enough.
It is heartening to see such a positive response to the report from both the NHS and the government, and there is much to be hopeful about. But recommendations can be welcomed and not implemented. The focus must now shift to the investment and hard work required in order to make them a reality.
Yesterday David Cameron conceded that the government has failed to prioritise mental health in the past, and promised “an extra £1billion a year for care to make sure it gets the attention in the NHS it needs”. However it is not clear where this extra money will come from or when it will start. TheTaskforce is backed by a pledge from the NHS to invest in excess of £1bn annually by 2020, but what about the intervening years? And how exactly will the extra money be distributed?
Cameron is keen to be seen as taking mental health care seriously as he pushes forward bold social reforms in his final years in office. But the hard work to bring about real change begins now.
“By 2030 there will be approximately two million more adults in the UK with mental health problems, so we need to get this right now,” says Brian Dow, director of external affairs at charity Rethink Mental Illness. “A quantum leap forward is required. Thousands of people deserve better than they have had in the past”.
For Alice, there is hope, relief and sadness on this milestone day for mental health. Hope that stories like hers might be consigned to history, relief that should she become unwell again the care might be better, and sadness that reforms come too late for her.
“I lost 10 years to mental health,” says Alice. “It’s been a battle to get the care I needed. If these recommendations had been implemented before I got ill I’m certain I would have had a happier and healthier life much earlier”.
For more information about the Taskforce and to read its report in full visit rethink.org