NHS

The NHS’ mental health crisis

On July 4th Britons return to the polls for the first general election since 2019. It is not at all surprising that the crisis facing the NHS is at the top of the list of voter’s priorities. The fact that the NHS is failing is no secret, doctors and advocacy groups have been sounding the alarm for years. Downing Street’s mishandling of the pandemic pushed a system already buckling under the weight of decades of insufficient funding and severe staff shortages to the breaking point. Unfortunately for those of us who rely on the NHS for care, it does not appear that the current Tory government has a plan or possibly even a desire to fix it. 

Perhaps no sector of the health service has felt the strain as much as the mental health service. In fact, its dire condition is what pushed Conservative MP Dan Poulter who is also a clinical psychiatrist to cross the aisle and join Labour at the end of April. In a statement following his resignation from the Party, he described his experiences working in A&E over the past year as dismaying and “life changing”

The fact that the NHS is failing is no secret, doctors and advocacy groups have been sounding the alarm for years.

Even before the pandemic, mental health diagnoses were on the rise, particularly among young people. Between 2017 and 2023 the incidence rate of probable mental health disorders in young people increased from 1 in 9 to 1 in 5. According to statistics released by the NHS at the end of 2023, there are 1.9 million people currently waiting for mental health services in England alone, over half a million are children and young adults which represents 155 percent increase since 2019.  

We should all be collectively alarmed by these trends as they represent far greater societal issues to come. In 2023, one in 20 young people in the UK were considered economically inactive due to poor mental health and the economic impact is already beginning to be felt. A report done by the Centre for Mental Health estimated that the total cost of mental ill health in England in 2022 was £300 billion with £110 billion being lost due to sickness and “presenteeism” at work. It is painfully obvious that the current situation is unsustainable yet in response to the burgeoning crisis, Tory leadership has continued to shift blame. Instead of recognising that decades of austerity and cuts to social programs are beginning to catch up to us, the current government has instead decided to dedicate their energies towards targeting benefits claimants who have been deemed unfit for work due to mental health issues. 

Rishi Sunak, in remarks made following the publishing of yet another green paper proposing cuts to the benefits system, claimed that the current system had allowed for the “medicalisation of everyday struggles and anxieties of life” and that those who are diagnosed with “minor” mental health conditions were simply looking for a way to avoid the normal “ups and downs” of life. When questioned about the government’s problematic rhetoric, Labour and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride argued that the proposed cuts to the personal independence payment (PIP) – a payment that is awarded based on the continued demonstrated need to help those with disabilities meet the additional costs associated with living with a chronic illness –  primarily aimed to encourage people to seek alternative services such as therapy and social support. He also said it was not intended to save the government money on benefit payments but did admit that “cost was a factor” as well.

the Tory government seems to be reverting to a tired strategy that sees disabled people being demonised to make the government appear tough on expenditure.

In an election year, the Tory government seems to be reverting to a tired strategy that sees disabled people being demonised to make the government appear tough on expenditure. By falsely claiming that Britain has a “sick note culture”, the Conservatives are attempting to reignite a culture war that uses disabled people as political capital. Instead of proposing real reform and actionable, practical policies, it is punching down and demonising those who need support the most. If the government is actually committed to addressing the mental health crisis in this country then they must recognise that the current system has been decimated by their own hand.  They must commit to training and retaining new mental health providers and commit to expanded funding that reflects the total unmet need of all NHS trusts. 

Whichever government comes to power this summer will have to recognise that as a society we are at a critical juncture. The cost of living crisis, growing rates of unemployment and poverty, poor social support and decimated public services are all the true drivers of our worsening mental health. Based on Sunak’s continued denial of the enormity of the problem, he has demonstrated that he and his party are incapable of moving beyond political grandstanding.  Whether Keir Starmer and Labour will deliver real change remains to be seen, but it is abundantly apparent that the Tory party is not even willing to recognise the root of the problem let alone commit to fixing it. This is why I, like Dan Poulter, hopefully look forward to a change in government this July.

Image Description: Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital

Image Credit: Francis Tyers via Wikipedia Commons