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Britain’s Mental Health Crisis Isn’t an Accident – It’s a Political Choice

Ten years of austerity has seen mental health budgets slashed while demand has risen to record levels. Britain's mental health crisis isn't inevitable – it's the result of political choices.

Credit: Sasha Freemind/Getty Images

Today marks World Mental Health Day, a time to reflect upon the importance of good mental health. This year, as in previous years, it comes amid worsening mental health across the country – and at a time when more and more children are struggling with self harm, and with the desire to disappear. Many of those in need suffer abuse or neglect at the hands of the people left to care for them with little resources, and less support. This is not a new problem: ten years of austerity have left mental health services across the country with an estimated 8.25 percent less funding than in 2010, despite a rise in demand of 20 percent.

Many people with mental health concerns struggle to ask for support. Of those who do, an estimated eight million are not deemed unwell enough to receive treatment. The pandemic has seen 1.6 million people added to NHS waiting lists, and huge numbers are turned away from mental health services every year. Meanwhile, cuts to Universal Credit, twinned with hikes in national insurance, council tax, and working hours, will only heighten the growing pressure on the public’s mental health. One in four adults will now suffer from a serious mental health condition in their lives, a number only set to increase. The NHS is in no way able to manage these numbers. It’s not even close.

Tory Lies Know No Bounds

Speaking at this year’s Global Mental Health Summit, Health Secretary Sajid Javid was almost honest in his observation that ‘we’ve seen a decade of change crammed into just two years.’ The pandemic has certainly caused a real confrontation with the crisis of mental health in Britain. One in five adults experienced some form of depression in the first three months of this year, over double last year’s numbers, with many unaccounted for given the element of withdrawal that often accompanies the illness.

Javid’s speech also pointed to the relationship between poverty and mental illness. This relationship is a close one: in the UK, children who live in families within the poorest 20 percent of households are four times more likely to have a serious mental health condition by the age of 11 compared to those from the wealthiest 20 percent. Despite this nod, the following day, the Tory government decided to discontinue the £20 Universal Credit uplift, plunging an estimated 840,000 people—300,000 of whom are children—into poverty.

In a move in the categorial opposite direction of both what they profess to and what is genuinely needed, the Tory government are working their hardest to deepen wealth, health, and educational disparities – and there is little opposition coming from the Labour Party.

Crises in the NHS

At the same time these crises of health and wealth are deepening, the service intended to help deal with their effects is in a bad way. Swingeing public service cuts have meant a 25 percent decline in mental health beds in the NHS since 2010, while the number of people attempting to access services has risen by 20 percent. In turn, reductions in mental health beds means over £100 million spent on private providers, resulting in less money for the NHS and its staff, and more taxpayer money funnelled into the unworthy coffers of private companies – a process that will only become easier with the passage of the Health and Care Bill.

This issue is regionally concentrated, too. Analysis by the King’s Fund found that the most deprived parts of England have seen NHS waiting lists in general grow by 50 percent, compared to 35 percent in the wealthiest parts. A Healthwatch England survey showed that 54 percent of people who had a loved one waiting for treatment saw it impact their mental health.

The levelling-up scheme set out by the prime minister this week is not a serious solution to any of these problems. On the contrary to what is suggested, money will in fact be taken from the budgets of already deprived communities and pumped into affluent areas that do not need it. Research by the Guardian found that the funds so far put in place to support those most deprived are being funnelled into the budgets of Tory constituencies, despite their relative affluence; one of these constituencies is that of Chancellor Rishi Sunak, whose department leads the work on the fund.

Fighting For Better

In an atomised world, where psychological issues can sometimes arise out of the challenge of connecting with others, computerised support is not the answer. The drive towards austerity included the introduction of a new form of NHS mental health support, provided over the telephone: IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) services have been shown to have a 50 percent success rate, and have since become the main therapy for treating mental health in the community.

The reality is that only a third of this 50 percent actually finish treatment, and are therefore deemed ‘successfully treated’. This means the IAPT success rate is more like 16 percent – a rate unlikely to be deemed a success anywhere else in medicine. The treatment patients receive (a maximum of 12 sessions including mindfulness, relaxation, employment counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy and, very rarely, highly manualised psychoanalytic work) can feel so inadequate that many who are genuinely struggling—and in my opinion need longer-term psychotherapy work—refuse to finish the course.

After years of underfunding and commercialisation, this is one example of the way the NHS itself is becoming far less capable of providing the necessary services to its patients – and the serious consequences that fall in capacity has for the mental health of millions. This crisis is no accident: it has been designed by a government that has hiked up working people’s tax contributions while funnelling more and more public money into private companies. Our society’s physical and mental health depends on putting a stop to their exploitation – if we don’t end it, no one will.