Jeremy Hunt’s mental health workforce plan is nothing more than a weak attempt to redress the damage that has occurred on the Tories’ watch, argues Luciana Berger MP
After many months of waiting, Jeremy Hunt has finally published his mental health workforce plan. The delayed strategy was supposed to be released last year so it has been a long time coming.
The staffing challenges in the National Health Service are commonly known. Only last week we heard there are over 86,000 vacant posts. This difficulty is even more pronounced in mental health, where morale is extremely low and services are so stretched. Fuelled by crises in recruitment and retention, the rate of vacancies is vast. It is galling that ministers are only just turning their attention to these shortages now, seven years after they came to power. During that time, staffing levels have been decimated while patients have faced long waits, treatment miles from home and patchy provision of care.
The number of mental health nurses alone has plummeted by nearly 7,000 since 2010. When this plan pledges 21,000 new mental health posts by 2021, many of which will be nurses, the irony is hard to miss. Its raison d’être is to refill the jobs that have been lost under the Tories.
To achieve its aims, the report relies on some bold assumptions. Students must decide in steady numbers that they want to train in mental health. Yet according to the British Medical Association, the number of junior doctors choosing to specialise in psychiatry is declining. This year there is only a 65 per cent fill rate of psychiatry training places compared to 84 per cent last year. And, as the nurse’s bursary has now been scrapped, there is the financial burden of studying nursing to consider. According to UCAS, applications for nursing and midwifery courses for the coming academic year have fallen by 23 per cent. Potential applicants for mental health would be hit even harder as they tend to be older with valued additional life experience. These candidates are therefore even less likely to want to take on nearly £50,000 worth of debt.
Hunt has given little thought to his offer to prospective members of the mental health workforce. Long hours, capped pay and a dangerously underfunded and overstretched working environment is hardly an appealing prospect. It is naïve to think this is a deal people will be rushing out to take up in such numbers. The current attrition rate for mental health staff is almost 14 per cent. This is significantly higher than in other parts of our health service, and for good reason. It is our mental health services which have carried a disproportionate weight of cuts. Extra funding promised for mental health has not been ringfenced so it has often ended up being siphoned off to prop up other areas of the NHS.
The mental health workforce plan gives scant mention to roles in prevention. Yet, keeping people well in the first place is not only the best thing for those struggling with their mental health, it will also ensure that services are sustainable and cost-effective. Crisis care must be avoided wherever possible. Prevention cannot continue to be an afterthought, it needs to be right at the heart of the approach. There is little evidence in the report that the government intends to implement any serious prevention strategies that would make a meaningful difference.
While it is welcome that steps have been laid out to remedy the glaring gaps in our mental health workforce, we must not misplace our praise. These measures will not bring about transformation. They are nothing more than a weak attempt to redress the damage that has occurred on the Tories’ watch. We need an ambitious vision, with prevention at the centre, to ensure that talk of equality for mental health actually becomes a reality.
Luciana Berger MP is president of the Labour Campaign for Mental Health. She tweets at @lucianaberger
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