The government’s empty words on mental health resources are being exposed, explains Joanne Harding
As a mental health professional, I support people in crisis every day. As a local councillor and health scrutiny chair, I have read countless strategies outlining the vision and commitment to achieving the holy grail of parity of esteem between physical and mental health services.
But neither role prepared me for seeing up close and personal the perilous state of our mental health services.
It began when a close friend of mine experienced an acute mental health crisis – a complete breakdown. I took him to our local urgent care centre where a raft of tests were carried out to rule out any physical causes, all done incredibly swiftly with every resource to hand. They all drew a blank.
But we were then informed: ‘the mental health team have gone home now, they finish at 8pm, you can go to another accident and emergency unit.’ To wait another five hours, presumably, as if a mental health crisis observes the structure of ‘normal hours’.
In one fell swoop, I saw parity of esteem for what it really is: empty words.
The next day my friend bravely went back to the urgent care centre to see the mental health team, still feeling very vulnerable and increasingly suicidal. ‘You’ve come to the wrong door, you need to check in next door,’ he was told. Three times he tried to access mental health services. Three times he failed. What he needed most of all was someone who could see he was broken and simply say: ‘Come in, let’s sit down and talk’. Basic human compassion, rather than rigid bureaucracy, was needed. Finally, he literally ‘ran off’, forcing me to call out emergency services to locate him and keep him safe.
An assessment was then carried out at hospital and it was decided an inpatient admission would be best. But there was not a bed to be found across the whole of the north-west. Parity of esteem proved to be useless sloganeering.
After three days a bed was finally found for him – 270 miles away in Brighton. His children drove with him for eight hours only to be told on their arrival: ‘We are not expecting you, we haven’t got your paperwork’. You may imagine how he felt. My friend and his children left in total despair. Three days later, he was eventually found a bed closer to home. His inpatient experience is for another article.
Having had time to reflect, some thoughts immediately occur to me. It is not always money or extra resource that is needed in mental health services, though more beds are clearly essential for people in crisis.
It is simply unacceptable for vulnerable people to have to travel to the opposite end of the country to access the care they need. And family support is a vital part of recovery.
But what is even more important is to change the current culture within our National Health Service.
There should be no ‘wrong door’. Paperwork should never be a barrier to empathy and compassion. No grand strategies, funding settlements, conferences or think tanks can ensure a health professional responds with care, rather than regarding a person in crisis as a problem instead of someone in immediate need. That is why parity of esteem feels a million miles away.
Joanne Harding is councillor on Trafford council and a member of the Progress strategy board. She is guest editing the Progress website for World Mental Health Day 2017 and she tweets at @Joanne13Harding