Research this week has again highlighted the growing problems in mental health inpatient services – surely the time has come for the government to act to address this?
When someone has to be sent 300 miles away – that’s the distance between Cardiff and Carlisle, for example – to access a mental health bed, you know something is wrong with the system.
While this may be an extreme case, highlighted in research by the BBC and Community Care magazine this week, the numbers of people being sent out of area – i.e. away from their local trust – have more than doubled in the past 2 years.
Data from Freedom of Information requests to 30 of the 58 mental health trusts in England revealed that last year 3,024 people were sent out of their local area for treatment, more than double the 1,301 sent away in 2011-12.
This again highlights the shortage of mental health beds in some areas of England. The research also found that some people with mental ill health were being placed in inappropriate accommodation, such as a ward for deaf people or a bed and breakfast. Quite how those places can give people with mental health issues the specialist help they need is beyond me.
Also, previous research by the BBC and Community Care last October found that many psychiatric wards are running at more than 100% capacity, while 1,700 mental health beds have closed in the past 2 years – a 9% reduction in the total number of beds available.
We also know that funding for mental health services is falling. Funding for mental health has dropped by 2.3% in real terms in the past two years. Specifically, crisis care funding has fallen by 1.7%, despite referrals having increased, on average, by 16%. It is worth remembering also that health budgets are supposed to be protected at the moment.
So the body of evidence that mental health inpatient services are severely strained increases. Surely now the time has come for the government to commit to addressing this?
While those in the Department of Health continue to make the right noises about improving care and giving mental and physical health ‘parity of esteem’ – which is welcome – this doesn’t appear to have filtered through to the frontline. Services – primary and secondary – are still being cut, as are the number of mental health beds. This has an impact on the quality of care, meaning more people are reaching crisis point where they need to be hospitalised. And this takes us back to the point about more people being sent out of area, which costs more.
The time for talk has long gone in addressing mental health issues. Action is needed. The government should commit to increasing spending in mental health so that vital services are maintained and increased – especially in areas where they have been cut.
While I’m not saying that throwing more money at the sector would be a panacea – the problems with mental health services are many and varied – it surely wouldn’t make things any worse.
Too many people are reaching a crisis and then not receiving the best treatment when they most need it. This has to change and reversing the fall in inpatient psychiatric beds would be a good place to start – nobody should be denied the care they need, when they need it or have to travel miles away from their family, friends and community to access it.