Dan Parton (17/01/12) looks forward to the year ahead - sort of ...  


For the first blog of 2012, I'm going to look forward to what the year may hold for those interested in mental health.Unfortunately, I'm finding it difficult to be optimistic.

Mental health seems to have fallen down the government's agenda in the past 12 months. Yet, when the national mental health strategy, 'No health without mental health' was launched in February of last year, there was a lot of optimism that it would be a priority.

The strategy's focus on outcomes, early intervention and well being were all welcomed as being long overdue, as was the intention to put mental health on the same footing as physical health.

However, optimism was quickly tempered by disappointment when,at the end of March, the government axed the National Mental Health Development Unit (NMHDU). At the time, many wondered who would pickup the mental health baton within government, and the fears this prompted appear to have been confirmed. Since then, the government has gone very quiet on the strategy.

Yet the ministerial advisory group, which is tasked with leading the delivery of the strategy, has met a few times and has asked for service users and carers to join the group. Hopefully more will be heard from it this year.

But there is cynicism about whether the strategy can be delivered in the face of swingeing public sector cuts. In 2011 there were regular stories from around the country of mental health services being cut back, and anecdotal evidence from service users that social care was also being reduced. This is not going to get any better in 2012 - if anything, things will get worse, as cuts continue to bite and the NHS and councils struggle to balance their books. Sadly, this will be the situation for years to come.

For service users, worries about benefits remain. The work capability assessment for employment and support allowance (ESA) is still being criticised for not adequately taking into account mental health issues - despite further revisions in 2011 - and many people on incapacity benefit are set to be reassessed for ESA this year, and could lose their benefit, under the revised eligibility criteria.

Upcoming disability living allowance reforms are also causing concern, with many worrying that the assessment process will not adequately recognise the impact of fluctuating conditions.

Mental health charity, Rethink Mental Illness, has called for the government to pause on its welfare reforms - in the light of widespread protests from people with disabilities and mental health problems - but, at the time of writing, the government has given no indication that it plans to do any such thing. On the contrary, it has said that it plans to push ahead with its reform programme.

Though times are undeniably tough, nobody should become entirely disheartened. There are many individuals and organisations doing great work with people with mental health problems - and making a real difference to their lives - regardless of funding cuts or government policy. And, constrained finances could drive innovation, as organisations and professionals seek to provide personalised services at lower cost.

While 2012 is set to be a difficult year for many people in the sector, it is important that good and innovative practice is given he prominence it deserves. Hopefully, that will ensure that such practice develops more widely and that the negative effects of cuts will, at least in part, be mitigated.