Ed Miliband says he wants to reform mental health care. My years on the front line make me sceptical

The Coalition's programme of cuts have had a disproportionate effect on the mentally ill and it will take more than words to fix that

Related Topics

There were plenty of times during the last 10 years when I said to myself “I can't do this anymore”. The phrase will be familiar to mental health workers up and down the country, often uttered following one of the tragically routine incidents in our working lives: The moment when you tell someone you've had to make call that may lead to their loss of liberty, the funerals attended only by professionals, or the heartbreak of admitting to someone clearly in the grip of torment that there is nothing you can do to help.

It's tempting to say it was some dramatic event of this nature that lead me, in February of this year, to tell my line manager that I really couldn't do this anymore, but it wasn't. After a decade on the front line, I'd got to the point where my skin was thick enough to cope with the endless cycle of disappointment and frustration. What really did for me was the inescapable conclusion that no matter how hard I, the organisation I worked for, or the sector as a whole toiled away, things just weren't going to get better. How then, should I react to the speech given yesterday by Ed Miliband, in which he stated his intention to “deploy all the resources of Britain” in order to best meet “the challenge of mental health”?

Perhaps it’s best to start with a look at the current state of our mental health system. Prior to the financial crisis of 2008, the sector was just about coping. Granted, it was still very much the Ugly Duckling of health care, but there was a sense that we were bailing the ship out at a rate that was roughly approximate to the water we were taking on. Resources were always scarce, margins of error were wafer thin and morale was never better than adequate, but if things stayed as they were, we would just about muddle through.

As it happened, things did not stay the same. I remember a feeling of dread slowly spreading across the sector as the economic news got more and more apocalyptic. At first, it felt like a phoney war: Lehman Brothers had gone bust and voices across the political spectrum predicted dire consequences, yet the world continued to turn. However, by 2010 things started to happen and happen very quickly. At this time I was a Housing Support Worker for a local charity and like most voluntary sector organisations, we were nearly 100 per cent dependent on local government and the NHS for funding. Just prior to the general election, a huge chunk of this funding was withdrawn and services that our clients had relied on for years began to close or scale back. At first, we hoped the Big Society would come riding to the rescue, but as the Coalition eased into power, these hopes faded. I would love to say that this was where the bad news ended, but the brutal truth is this was just the beginning.

The next wave of despair to engulf the sector had started to build on Labour's watch when they introduced Employment and Support Allowance, a benefit of Kafkaesque complexity which many people with mental health problems rely on. Helping clients negotiate their way through the Work Capability Assessment, a short face-to-face interview designed to determine the clients eligibility for benefits proved an infuriating experience for us, and was more stressful for our clients, usually people already at the limit of what they could cope with. Even so, we weren't prepared for just how harsh the benefits system as a whole would become under the Coalition.

Night after night, the news carried stories of proposed reductions to the various sources of income or relief that people with mental health problems rely on. The squeeze on housing benefit and the plan to cut council tax benefit may sound like they only affect peoples' income to the tune of a few pounds a week but when put in the context an already meagre settlement and rising prices, they conspire to make tough lives even tougher.

So this is where we're at now: A perfect storm where services across the board are already creaking ominously, yet will still have to hold steady against a rising tide of poverty, social ills and the 77 per cent of cuts that the Institute for Fiscal Studies says are still to come.

Against a backdrop such as this, it's hard to welcome the content of Ed Miliband's speech with anything other than open arms. Yet, if he is serious about getting to grips with the problems in the mental health sector, he must be prepared for long, hard and unpredictable fight, that has so far bested every governmental challenger.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Ashdown Group: IT Manager - Salesforce / Reports / CRM - North London - NfP

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and reputable Not for Profit o...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger & Credit Control Assistant

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Ledger & Credit Control...

Recruitment Genius: Project Administrator

£16000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Administrator is requ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
MP David Lammy would become the capital’s first black mayor if he won the 2016 Mayoral election  

Crime, punishment and morals: we’re entering a maze with no clear exit

Simon Kelner

The two most important parts of Obama’s legacy could be on the brink of collapse, and this time there's no back-up plan

David Usborne
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn