In recent years, mental health has been a topic that has received increased coverage – not least due to changing attitudes and effective public campaigns aimed at removing the stigma surrounding the area.
And indeed, mental health is a subject that all health professionals have become more knowledgeable of, with a need to recognise where such issues may be affecting patients in contact with healthcare services.
“Services are both underfunded and now facing issues with retaining an adequately staffed workforce”
We continue to hear much rhetoric from politicians about how the sector will get the attention it craves in terms of funding.
Both the prime minister and health secretary have previously mentioned the government’s commitment to mental health, yet in the autumn budget, it received scant specific mention aside from plans to offer support in schools.
While any new initiatives are certainly to be welcomed, they fail to address the wider burden. Mental health has long faced a shortfall of adequate funding – receiving just 11% of the NHS budget, while accounting for 23% of the UK’s disease burden.
“How can we encourage new nurses? Also, crucially, how do we address the issue of retention?”
Were this to be the case for another area of health, it seems unthinkable that the disparity would continue consistently for so long. It begs the question, does the government really take mental health seriously? If not, when will it begin to?
While the prominent anti-stigma campaigns and a more visible discussion about mental health are all well and good – talking about it and increasing awareness is just one facet of tackling a major healthcare issue.
For example, it is no substitute for access to services and appropriate care. But services are both underfunded and now facing issues with retaining an adequately staffed workforce, which only paints a still bleaker picture of the sector’s future.
Last week, Health Education England’s chief executive Ian Cumming unveiled draft workforce plans to address the shortage of both mental health and learning disability nurses.
The numbers of which have been on the slide, leaving 16% of learning disability posts in the NHS empty, and 14% of mental health nursing jobs vacant.
Previously, HEE’s Mental Health Workforce Plan, which was launched in August, had stated that 19,000 new mental health staff (including nurses) would need to be employed by 2020 alone to meet targets.
Of course, workforce issues are not unique to mental health, as nursing itself is facing wider problems with a fall this year in registrants, fewer applicants to nursing courses and, perhaps most importantly, difficulty retaining the existing workforce.
“Those on the frontline cannot be expected to ease such a burden without the tools to do so”
How can we encourage new nurses? Also, crucially, how do we address the issue of retention?
Successive governments have failed to truly match rhetoric with the implied actions on mental health issues. This government needs to show that it really cares about it and give those working in the field the resources they need.
It is not sustainable for a workforce with limited resources to struggle on as it has. Leaders in the profession must also look for ways to retain that workforce, but this needs real action and support from government.
Saying that it is committed to it, but offering little more than a few soundbites is a routine that can only be kept up for so long. It is time for them to deliver on their promises.
Those on the frontline cannot be expected to ease such a burden without the tools to do so, and we should all continue to place pressure on government to put its money where its mouth is on mental health.