Next week, the Government is expected to announce a winter care plan for mental health services. No doubt, it will be packaged up beautifully like a Christmas gift, with ribbons and exquisite wrapping paper; a present under the tree designed to keep everyone quiet for a bit. But like a festive gift from a forgetful uncle or aunt, it remains to be seen whether or not the box actually contains anything.
Going on previous announcements by Nadine Dorries, the mental health minister, none of us should get too excited. Last week she was asked eight times by her Labour shadow, Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, if she would meet to discuss a mental health support package for NHS staff. Dorries responded by telling Dr Khan that if she wanted to set policy, she should “try harder” to win an election.
Of course, Dr Khan – who still works shifts as an A&E doctor – has won an election, in her south London constituency, or she wouldn’t have been standing in the Commons addressing Dorries at all. Still, we can read into this the intentions of the right honourable former I’m A Celebrity contestant: she is the one in power, and what she says goes!
And what Dorries basically says is: everything is fine in mental health services. ABSOLUTELY FINE, OK? She says it again and again, like a five-year-old with chocolate on their face insisting they haven’t raided the cookie jar. If she just repeats this assertion, maybe everyone will believe it. Maybe it will actually become true.
In fact, Dorries would like us to know that if anything, the nation’s mental health has probably been improved by the pandemic. In a debate last month, she actually said this.
“Some people are enjoying working from home and do not ever want to go back to doing the commute, which they now realise was making them feel pretty miserable. They are welcoming the social change that had occurred. It is not at all a case of one size fits all, and that is why we need to be careful.”
By “we”, what she means is “the media”. If there is a mental health problem in this country, then it is our fault for reporting scary things, instead of staying shtum about them.
“There is some very unhelpful dialogue taking place that does not help people at all,” she said in the same debate. “We may see in the newspapers or hear people saying that suicide rates are going up, but they are not. We have no evidence of that; in fact, the reported suicide rate from April to June was down.”
We also have no evidence that any newspapers have reported anything other than the statistics given to them – perhaps Dorries means social media, where these sort of unchecked falsities tend to bloom.
Dorries added that “we all need to be careful about how we talk about mental health... I caution everyone that we need to be careful about the language we use, such as ‘falling off a cliff edge’, or the ‘tsunami’ of mental health issues. According to the clinical lead at the NHS... there is no evidence to support any of that yet.” In truth, we will not get a full picture of suicide rates during the pandemic for some time to come. If they do fall, as we must hope, this will have more to do with the slow dismantling of stigma than government policy, unfortunately.
Yet all the evidence shows that mental health services in this country are in danger of “falling off a cliff edge” (Dorries’s words, not mine). They have been allocated none of the £588 million pot that the Government announced in August to help the NHS safely discharge patients should services get to capacity this winter, the reasoning being that mental health services are not affected by the seasons. No. But mental health services are at capacity all year round. For them, it is winter 365 days of the year.
A brief dip in admissions at the beginning of the pandemic was followed inevitably by a rise in sectioning – a rise that can in part be attributed to all the patients who were discharged in March to free up space for coronavirus patients, without any adequate care having first been put in place.
The Government created the £588 million pot to prevent a repeat of the mistakes made during the first wave of Covid, but when it comes to mental health services, it seems happy to repeat those mistakes again and again and again.
We must remember that it was a Conservative government that was bold enough to have parity of esteem between mental and physical health written into the NHS constitution, back in 2012. It must now follow through on its promise, and provide a mental health winter care plan that contains more than just hot air.