It's early days, but the jury is very much still out on this new Conservative health team, writes David Pink, chief executive of the UK Council for Psychotherapy.
The health secretary Jeremy Hunt set out his priorities this week, as Conservatives gathered for their annual conference in Birmingham.
Mr Hunt gave priority to trying to improve our survival rates for major diseases. While laudable, it sits oddly as a priority given that the biggest task of the NHS in the twenty first century is not curing disease but helping people to live with and manage long-term conditions. This is as true for cancer as it is for coronary heart disease, diabetes and many mental health conditions.
Mr Hunt placed a valuable emphasis on ensuring that quality of care is given the same priority as quality of treatment. Within this context though it was unfortunate that little mention was made of the critical importance of psychological wellbeing. For those seeking treatment for mental health issues the quality of care IS an integral part of the quality of treatment: the experience of being listened to, understood, supported and cared for as critical as any particular treatment pathway that is followed.
And, while all eyes were on Conservative conference, in parliament the Conservative health minister Earl Howe this week admitted that government spending on mental health services was being cut in real terms. Speaking in a House of Lords debate on Monday night Earl Howe claimed it “quite an achievement” that the cut to mental health budgets was so small given the huge cost pressures on the NHS.
This is a scandal. Although the Conservatives hold fast to the Prime Minister’s commitment that the overall NHS budget will be protected, it makes no sense for mental health services to be suffering cuts. As a recent LSE report powerfully pointed out, mental illness accounts for a quarter of the total disease burden on the NHS, yet it receives only 13 per cent of health funding.
Improving the psychological wellbeing of the population must be a top priority for the government. Achieving this will save the government money with more people in work, fewer on benefits and reduced pressure on other parts of the NHS. Mental health cannot continue to be a ‘Cinderella service’ in a twenty first century health system.
Mr Hunt told us this week that as health secretary he wanted to see less people die of curable diseases. But, he did not tell us whether he thought it was ok for community and mental health services to suffer larger cuts so that surgery and chemotherapy can be protected.