Image: Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg
Nick Clegg picked mental health for his big pre-election conference theme. He announced that his current Coalition government would be setting new waiting time targets for those afflicted by common mental illnesses such as depression. He also said that if re-elected the Lib Dems would put treatment for mental health conditions on a level with physical health from 2015.
I’m strangely reminded ‘The Thick of It’ when I picture the Liberal Democrat Election Strategy team carefully considering whether they could in fact be the party that takes ownership of the ‘mental health demographic’.
Seriously, such a strategy might indeed be useful - if it were plausible. But here’s four good reasons why Nick Clegg’s grandiose claims about being the champion of mental health services don’t stack up.
1. Equal to what?
Clegg has promised to put treatment for mental illnesses on a level with physical health from 2015. So let’s be clear. Would that be putting it on a par with the GP funding that has been cut by nearly £1 billion, leading many surgeries to face financial collapse? Perhaps it would be putting it on a par with the A&E departments now in crisis due to the number of hospital beds axed? The A&E that left 5,000 patients in a week waiting over 4 hours recently? Or perhaps on a par with cancer care, which had its funding cut between 2009 and 2013 despite rising rates of diagnosis?
On reflection perhaps expounding Liberal Democrat desires to achieve parity between physical and mental health might not have been such a clever thing to do in 2014.
2. The Coalition track record
A growing number of acutely unwell children are being admitted to adult psychiatric wards or sent hundreds of miles for hospital care, a recent BBC / Community Care investigation revealed. There is a national bed shortage at young people’s mental health units. The number of children admitted to adult units has increased by 36% in the last year. At least 1,711 mental health beds - nearly 10% of the total number - have been closed since April 2011.
More than two-thirds of mental health trusts are reporting a total drop in real-term spending of 2.3 per cent since 2011/12, and ten trusts are projecting further cuts next year.
During the period in which these cuts have been made, Nick Clegg has been Deputy Prime Minister. Mr Clegg might find it easier to seize the agenda on mental health had the austerity policies of his coalition government not ripped through the heart of mental health services, directly putting people’s lives at risk.
3. Austerity drives us mad
More than eight in 10 GPs now believe that their local mental health teams cannot cope with mental health caseloads, and nearly half said that the situation in their area had got even worse in the past 12 months.
Referrals to specialist mental health teams have increased, on average, by 16 per cent in the last year.
The rising levels of mental health problems are linked to the broader austerity agenda of Clegg’s government. The links between austerity economics and mental ill health are by now well established. Financial strain, income inequality, debt, absence of essential services, regressive taxes like the bedroom tax. Unnecessary austerity policies have put an intolerable strain on a growing number of vulnerable people.
4. The Lib Dems financial links to private mental health providers
The Liberal Democrat’s biggest donor is the owner of an expanding private sector NHS business providing allegedly substandard care to vulnerable mental health patients. Sudhir Choudhrie and his son Bhanu Choudhrie own the healthcare business Alpha Health. It has given the Lib Dems £1.26 million over the last 10 years, including hefty individual donations. Recently the Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes accepted a £60,000 donation from Sudhir Choudhrie.
The Choudhries founded Alpha Health Group in 2002. It runs three psychiatric hospitals (Alpha Hospitals) and several elderly care homes (Alpha Care). Both organisations have been plagued with allegations of substandard care.
In 2008, Rita Smith, a resident of Alpha Care`s Waterloo House home in Bidford-on-Avon, Warwickshire died after contracting MRSA following weeks of alleged neglect. Mrs Smith’s daughter, Debbie Wride, said her mother developed bedsores because staff failed to change her position in bed. The family sued Alpha Care Homes and agreed an out-of-court settlement in 2012.
In January 2013, CQC inspectors found that patients at Bromson Hill Care Home in Warwickshire “were not protected against the risk associated with medicines because the provider did not have appropriate arrangements in place to manage medicines”. Moreover, the Care Quality Commission noted that “Alpha Hospitals-Woking was not meeting one or more essential standards. Improvements are needed.”
Alpha Hospital, Woking hit the headlines again recently. It emerged that a juvenile patient had told Care Quality Commission (CQC) inspectors that “seclusion and intramuscular injections were regularly used as threats". Inspectors also found that a young person who had banged his head in seclusion was left lying on the floor for 15 minutes being sick.
So, we have problematic financial links to a disgraced private healthcare company, austerity worsening people’s mental health, general health service cuts and a specific decrease in funding for mental health services.
Perhaps somebody in the higher echelons of Liberal Democrat policy making should have pointed out that it’s probably best to stay away from mental health in the run-up to the election.
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