Talk of crisis

Not even the most senior family court judge in the country can get patients a mental health bed, argues Luciana Berger

Mental health is on the lips of prime ministers and future kings. Mental health has gone mainstream.

We must celebrate that, because the more we talk about mental health, the fewer the number of people who feel embarrassed or isolated, and the more people are willing to seek help early by talking to family and friends and turning to the national health service. So, it is good to talk.

Increasingly, though, the talk is of crisis.

The government promised parity for mental health, but it has delivered crisis – in funding, staffing, care quality and, worst of all, in confidence that help will be there when called for.

If today is an average day across Merseyside, the police will be called upon to detain 42 people under the Mental Health Act, many for the second or third time in a month.

Why are the police involved at all?

Have a heart attack, or a stroke, go into a diabetic coma – and would you expect the police to provide your healthcare? No. However, we are asked to accept that increasing numbers of people in a mental health crisis have to turn to the police.

The police respond, they turn out. That is welcome, but it is not acceptable that a crime-fighting force should be expected to plug holes in our healthcare system.

Parity for mental health – real equality – should mean that people in a mental health crisis get a health response.When the NHS finally gets involved, the crisis heightens. This summer, president of the high court’s family division James Munby tried to place a desperately ill child, ‘Girl X’, in a specialist mental health bed after she repeatedly and determinedly tried to take her own life and had to be restrained 117 times.

For days, despite the intervention of the most senior family court judge in the country – and what he described as the unstinting efforts of social workers, mental health staff and others – a bed could not be found.

When a bed was eventually available for Girl X in August, it inevitably raised the question in all our minds of who may have been pushed back in the queue to meet her needs.

Having raised the case at prime minister’s questions there was nothing but pious words from our nation’s leader.

Our mental health system cannot cope because it does not invest in prevention and early intervention. It is, at best, a crisis service – and a strained one at that. Too many psychiatric beds are occupied by people who could not access community support at an early stage, became so ill that a hospital admission was required and cannot move back into the community for fear of the cycle being repeated.

Ensuring we have adequate community services would reduce the number of people in crisis needing a bed and increase the number of people able to leave hospital and to be appropriately supported in the community.

But we need to go further. We must ringfence mental health spending and invest properly in prevention and early intervention to make the difference that is so desperately needed.

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Luciana Berger MP is the former shadow minister for mental health. She tweets at @lucianaberger

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