Last weekend saw the walkout en masse of social mobility tsar Alan Milburn and all three of his fellow commissioners. In his resignation letter, Milburn, a former Labour cabinet minister, stated that the Government lacks “the necessary bandwidth to ensure the rhetoric of healing social division is matched with the reality”.
Sadly, much like the noble cause of improving social mobility, a gulf now exists in mental health care between the rhetoric and the reality of government policy.
In her inaugural speech in those heady summer days of 2016, Theresa May spoke passionately about the “burning injustice” of the lack of help to hand for those suffering with mental health problems. A puzzling injustice perhaps given the revolution in mental health treatment that had been pledged by her predecessor in January that same year.
The injection of £1.6bn into the NHS over the next year, announced in the recent Budget, is indeed some way short of a cure – it is less than half the £4bn experts warned was required to continue to deliver even the care that is currently expected of it. The silence on mental health funding specifically, beyond rather nebulous plans for a green paper on child and adolescent mental health, was deafening.
This endemic failure to match rhetoric with reality and put their money where their mouth is has led to real-term cuts for frontline mental health services. I, like many others, have come to know this all too well.
I qualified as a doctor from Oxford in 2015 and it was while studying there that I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I have experienced first-hand the difficulties that exist not only as a patient in accessing care but also the immense frustration as a doctor of being unable to deliver the requisite care for those with mental health issues. These very real difficulties are the result of a pervasive lack of resources and a direct consequence of systematic underfunding of mental health services.
In October this year I tried to commit suicide. From the dizzying highs of mania, I descended, spiralling, crashing into the deepest depths of depression; a complete, numbing misery. An act I have tried and failed to justify since that fateful day seemed the only escape from that terrifying rollercoaster. I ended up as a patient, in the darkest moments of my life in the very hospital and on the very wards on which I normally work.
The care and compassion of the staff that treated me is something that I will never forget and for which I am immensely grateful. However, it brought home to me in a way no other experience ever could the scale of the problem before us and its implications for some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Resources are gravely overstretched, staff overworked and tragically this means that for many it takes a mental health crisis before they can get the help they so desperately need.
Efforts to improve awareness and reduce the stigma around mental health have come forward in leaps and bounds in recent years. This is thanks, in no small part, to the courage of public figures such as Prince Harry and many others in speaking candidly about their own mental health issues. Work is also being done within the medical profession to destigmatise mental illness among medics themselves. The Doctors’ Support Network, of which I am proud to be a part of, provides peer support and advice for doctors and medical students with mental health concerns.
However, for those in government, those with the power, merely opening a dialogue does not pass muster. Only through real-terms increases in funding can the improvements in mental health care, that are so desperately needed, be made. Without that funding, the burning injustice will only burn brighter.
The medical staff that brought me through what was the worst period of my life, who brought light into that horrifying darkness and supported me on the road to recovery, have a dedication to their work that is truly beyond words. But, they are overstretched and underfunded.
The rhetoric of mental health must prove more than empty words, or tokenism. This issue is more than a baby to be kissed on the campaign trail before being abandoned on the doorstep. To feel as though your deepest, most intimate pains are being used as nothing more than a political football is agonising.
Mental health issues and the vulnerable people affected by them deserve far better.
Dr Matthew Christie is a foundation doctor and general secretary for the Doctors’ Support Network. If you have been affected by this story, you can contact the following organisations for support:
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