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We can’t achieve parity for mental health services in by 2020

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  • There is a huge public support for improved access to mental health care
  • High-profile media interest and political influence will sharpen the focus on mental health services
  • Prejudice is shifting, but there is still much work to be done to encourage people to talk about their mental health
  • The Five-Year Forward View is a major opportunity for mental health services to be improved and the mental health service user’s journey to be enhanced – we must not miss out on that

It won’t be possible to achieve parity of esteem for mental health services in the next four years. That was the verdict of several of the expert speakers and panelists at Transforming Mental Health – the first mental health congress jointly organised by Nursing Times and Health Service Journal for some years. The event took place yesterday and those in charge of driving through the Five Year Forward View for mental health agreed that while the aims are laudable, there is much to achieve in the strategy’s four remaining years, and realism should be the name of the game.

“There has never been a greater opportunity to deliver the much-needed improvements”

Speakers said that we must be pragmatic and that while the NHS can – and should – make major improvements in mental health access and services, it will not be able to achieve parity with “physical” health by the strategy’s goal of 2020.

Keynote speaker Paul Farmer, chief executive of charity Mind, said there has never been a greater opportunity to deliver the much-needed improvements in the mental health journey. He talked about the high media profile of mental illness, with conditions being discussed in the news and appearing on prime time television shows such as EastEnders, while former prime minister David Cameron and current PM Theresa May have given NHS leaders the political mandate to improve the mental health service user’s journey.

“There is still a long way to go for mental health services to attain the profile and the focus of physical health conditions”

It used to be, Paul commented, that the only time mental illness made the headlines was when a person with a psychotic condition committed murder. Now, he said, people talk about – and consider – their mental health, and it is no longer subject to as much prejudice. However, he said there is still a long way to go for mental health services to attain the profile and the focus of physical health conditions and other disabilities.

Claire Murdoch, NHS England’s national director for mental health – a registered nurse and chief executive of Central and North West London FT, agreed that mental health should not be pushed aside for other priorities. She made an excellent point that mental health is sometimes lumped together as a single priority. She said it isn’t a competition between COPD, diabetes, and mental health. Mental health is the umbrella term covering a wide range of conditions. Claire is right – why shouldn’t each of these condition be given equal priority with respiratory or other physical conditions?

Claire’s enthusiasm, like that of many other speakers, was impressive. But the audience, even at the end of a day of inspiring presentations, reflected that they still had doubts about what can be achieved, that the Five Year Forward View might be, as Paul Farmer put it, “another false dawn” in mental health policy.

”Who will ever improve those service users’ experience?”

I empathise with that. There have been many occasions when mental health care, which many at the congress described as the “Cinderella” service, has been forsaken so that funds could be diverted to acute hospital services needing money for trauma, surgery or some other physical health need.

Mental health seems “invisible”, but if those working in the service feel that way, just how frustrating and lonely must it be for people trying to navigate the service?

If you’ve had a good mental health journey as a service user, chances are that you will have been in the minority in this country. And if mental health professionals, charities, think tanks and those in charge of implementing the Five Year Forward View for mental health don’t take command and make the changes, who will ever improve those service users’ experience?

I agree with the speakers at yesterday’s event. This is the best opportunity the mental health service has had in years, and its leaders must absolutely use it. People using the service now and in the future are depending on them.

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