Report finds mental health beds for young people fell by 20% since 2017
65% of trusts leaders say they are unable to meet demand
50% of NHS capacity is outsourced to the private sector
NHS England’s latest TV ad promoting talking therapies, featuring music celebrities and a spoken rendition of a classic Beatles song, has attracted widespread press coverage, but take-up of the services on offer risks being undermined by the historic capacity, workforce and funding issues that constrain mental health provision.
One leading figure in the sector – the NHS Confederation’s mental health network chief executive Sean Duggan – has suggested this campaign fails to address core issues, despite its welcome focus on early intervention. “The government must go further,” he says, “in its acknowledgement of the increased demands placed on mental health services as a result of the pandemic, and invest accordingly.”
Last month Duggan wrote about the problems facing children and young people with a mental health disorder – effectively those being targeted by NHSE’s TV ad – during the pandemic, saying, “Sixty per cent of [this group] are not able to access support, [while] our analysis of available data shows a 50 per cent increase in the number in contact with mental health services between September 2019 and September 2020.” He added “We do not have enough staff [and] mental health services for children and young people have historically been underfunded.”
Duggan’s comments echo those of Dr Adrian James, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, one of the organisations endorsing the TV campaign. After the college’s call during last October’s Budget for an extra £8.9bn to fund mental health services was rebuffed, James said, “Record numbers of people are waiting for treatment, yet mental health seems to be at the bottom of the list of government priorities in this spending review.”
Coinciding with the campaign launch, healthcare consultancy Candesic has released an analysis of Care Quality Commission data relating to hospital bed capacity for children and young people with mental health problems. Its research showed that the number of beds available for this group has fallen by a fifth since 2017, with more than 10 per cent cut as recently as last year.
Reporting on these findings, the FT noted that 65 per cent of NHS Trust leaders were currently “unable to meet demand for children and adolescent mental health services, resulting in higher thresholds for treatment, longer waiting times and more placements further away from family homes”.
Similarly, analysis of NHS data by the Independent last month showed that almost all mental health hospitals in London were nearly 100 per cent full during October and November last year – with just 10 children’s beds out of 140 available – and 94 per cent full across England.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the FT also noted that mental health generally was one of the most heavily outsourced parts of the NHS, and that while 98 per cent of beds are paid for by the health service, more than half that capacity was managed by private providers – providers which have actually been cutting beds while the number managed directly by the NHS has remained stable over the past five years.
So, while the title of the song used in NHSE’s ad – Help! – is clearly aimed at encouraging people (particularly the young) struggling with their mental health to seek support, it could equally represent a plea to ensure the services those individuals will depend on actually survive.
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