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

Share
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

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

My shameful failure to live up to the spirit of Christmas

Howard Jacobson
A pill for obesity is a step closer, with two separate studies showing that it may be possible to influence the body’s tendency to build up damaging fat deposits beneath the skin  

Being fat is the last social taboo. It is the actual elephant in the room

Rosie Millard
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all