The St Aubyn’s Centre in Colchester doesn’t feel like a hospital. It has a school attached, with its own science lab and basketball courts. Its wards have their own ping-pong and pool tables. The patients’ rooms have private gardens.
The only NHS facility of its kind in the south of England, it is a mental health unit providing care for teenagers experiencing severe emotional and psychological problems. The children who are patients here are some of the most vulnerable people in the country. Here, they are well looked after. In so many other places around the country, in homes, in schools and in hospitals, children in similar states of crisis are not.
It is because St Aubyn’s represents an example to the rest of the NHS that Norman Lamb, the Care Minister, has chosen the facility to launch the biggest shake-up of children’s mental health services in recent times. Despite being a minister of a Government which is ultimately responsible for the children’s mental healthcare, Mr Lamb does not pull his punches about the current state of affairs: “hopeless”, “dysfunctional” and “awful” are just a few of the words he chooses.
Nor does he have any qualms about asking awkward questions in front of the staff of St Aubyn’s. On a visit this week he was introduced to a teenage patient: “How is it going, do you feel listened to? Is the food okay?” The young man tells him he does, and it is, and that since coming to the centre he has gone from feeling “low” to feeling “high”.
“Great,” the minister says. “This is a lot better than other places.”
Built in 2012, the centre is a world away from its predecessor, which staff say had the feel of being closed in, not unlike an old-style asylum. Many facilities around the country are still like that, but patients at St Aubyn’s, many of whom are awaiting their GCSE results next week, have access to the on-site school, which is Ofsted-inspected, and staff arrange outings to the seaside in the summer holidays.
But even at St Aubyn’s there is evidence of the intense pressures on a service which has been underfunded for years, and in recent times has become an underreported victim of agenda of austerity. Capacity pressures mean that it is now commonplace for mental health patients (children and adults) to be moved to a hospital far from home, because it is the only place where specialist care is available. One of the current in-patients has been moved to Colchester from their home and family, in a West Country town hundreds of miles away.
But the problem with mental healthcare goes beyond bed capacity. Facilities like St Aubyn’s are needed in times of crisis, such as when a patient has to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act, but the best place for care to take place, Mr Lamb says, is in the home.
Mr Lamb has campaigned on mental health issues for most of his political career and his passion for subject is obvious. But in his time as care minister he has seen services coming under ever-increasing pressure with ever-decreasing resources. The new taskforce, launched today, will hope to address many of the issues. In the long-run, he now says it is “critical” that, as the economy improves, money finds its way down to scandalously neglected services like children’s mental health.
“It’s an investment in our future,” he told The Independent. “It’s flawed to think that you’re making a saving by cutting resources going into children’s mental health. So many of the problems of mental health in adulthood start in teenage years. To cut that will cost society far more in the long-run, let alone the impact on the individual.”