LLast summer a young man – let’s call him Daniel – walked into the emergency department of a hospital in England and told doctors he had schizophrenia. He had struggled with his mental health for years, and now he wanted help. But after being briefly seen by an early intervention team, he was released. A few days later, he stabbed a stranger whom he considered a threat to his life, and now he is locked in a prison cell. “I’m devastated for him,” his mother told me, “and worried for others in similar situations.”
This is not an attack on the army of overworked and underpaid NHS staff, who are doing their best under unnecessarily difficult circumstances. Rather, it is a call for attention to solve one of the great under-discussed crises of modern Britain: the mental distress that ravages the lives of millions of citizens and the lack of provisions to deal with it. face.
Not just 1.6 million people are languishing, according to charity Mind on mental health waiting lists, there are still 8 million people who would benefit from treatment, but cannot be placed on these oversubscribed waiting lists due to high eligibility thresholds. The Guardian recently revealed that the NHS in England is paying private hospitals £2billion a year to care for mental health patients due to a lack of its own beds – another stark example of lights flashing red on the health board. edge. For those who shrug their shoulders that relying on the private sector is just a pragmatic solution to help those in need, consider the fact that one in four non-NHS mental health facilities have been deemed ‘inadequate’ by Care Quality Commission inspections. “If taxpayers’ money is being spent on shoddy care in some cases,” says Mind policy officer Vicki Nash, referring to recent deaths in private mental health services, “we have to ask ourselves: money better spent elsewhere?
Our rulers will undoubtedly refute these criticisms. After all, the Conservative-led coalition government announced more than a decade ago that mental health would enjoy parity of esteem with physical health care, and more investment has been poured into the sector. , including £500m last year in response to the pandemic. As the King’s Fund think tank has argued, while it is useful to demand parity of esteem, especially in a country where suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50 – it must be matched adequate funding and better collaboration between different NHS departments.
What we do know is that the increase in investment has been matched by the increase in need. Calls to the anti-suicide charity Campaign Against Living Miserably’s hotline, for example, jumped 40% when the pandemic began, while there was a 100% increase in the number young people aged 16 to 24 accessing its website. . The trauma triggered by the pandemic and the drastic measures needed to contain it cannot be underestimated: according to the World Health Organization, cases of anxiety and depression jumped up a quarter worldwide in the first year alone.
The testimonies of those working in mental health services in crisis tell their own story. A mental health professional with decades of experience tells me, “Now is the worst time I can remember due to a staffing crisis that has been a problem for over five years now, and probably closer to 10 years.” Staffing issues had caused them to start locking patients up at night, they tell me, and while a new unit being built should be cause for celebration, it is causing them terror as staff leave en masse.
Another worker told me about a child patient with a history of abuse who was taken off a waiting list because his working mother missed a call from mental health services. One of their patients who suffered abuse from her parents and then her partners has suicidal tendencies, they say, but waiting lists mean waiting months for an evaluation and then another 18 months before getting help. The mother of a suicidal teenager was forced to put a referral to child and adolescent mental health services in writing, said it would be two weeks before an urgent appointment was possible, and estimated that there was no choice but to take him to a chaotic center. A&E department busy. “My son feels like his life isn’t worth worrying about and he feels even more hopeless,” she told me. If you talk to anyone who has been through our struggling mental health system, you’ll hear the term “waiting lists” come up again and again.
Why do we accept such chronic and systemic failures, many of which undoubtedly lead not only to needlessly prolonged misery, but in too many cases to death? Perhaps the sheer number of crises plaguing modern Britain is crowding out the space to talk about it. Whatever the answer, avoidable misery is imposed on millions of people due to a recurring failure to match needs with supplies – and the human cost is incalculable.
In the UK and Ireland, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or by email at [email protected] or [email protected] In the United States, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 or by chat for help. You can also text HOME to 741741 to get in touch with a crisis text line counsellor. In Australia, the Lifeline crisis helpline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org
Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist