The mental health system is in crisis. It’s a car crash waiting to happen.
That’s according to Prof Sue Bailey, the outgoing president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, in an interview earlier this week. Her comments came a day before the British Medical Association’s annual meeting, where delegates were told that cuts to mental health services are resulting in avoidable deaths and suicides. Sadly, neither of these stories told me anything I didn’t already know. I’ve seen at first-hand how the mental health system is failing vulnerable people. For many of us dealing with mental illness, the car crash has already happened.
In fact, my experiences of mental health care were so bad that a few years ago I completely gave up on trying to get support. I’d been going through a period of severe anxiety and had waited for months to see a therapist. But after a few sessions, she told me she was being transferred. I’d have to go back on the waiting list and start all over again.
The whole experience made my anxiety worse, so I decided I’d be better off looking after myself. That can be a real challenge because I have a long-term and serious mental illness, schizoaffective disorder. Sometimes I struggle and need support, but like many people with mental health issues, I find it difficult to ask for help. That’s partly because of the stigma around mental illness, but it’s also because I’m afraid of going back into the mental health system.
It’s been the same story since I first tried to get help when I was 17. I was feeling suicidal, but the waiting lists were so long that I didn’t get the therapy I needed. If I’d had a serious physical illness, I’d have been treated within 18 weeks, but there are no maximum waiting times for mental illness, so people can wait for years to get support. Many people miss out altogether.
My mental health gradually got worse, until eventually I reached crisis point and had a breakdown. I was taken to A&E after being found walking down the middle of a busy dual carriageway. There were no beds available, so they just sent me away with a handful of Valium.
After that I gave up hope, and decided to end my own life. Luckily for me, a stranger stopped me and talked me out of it. He gave me a simple message of hope – that I could get better. I’d never been told that before, and it changed everything for me.
From that day, things started to improve, and earlier this year I launched a campaign to find the good Samaritan who’d helped me. My search was made into a documentary, Finding Mike. Since then I’ve been inundated with messages from people who’ve been through the same kind of thing. It really brought home to me how much we’re all affected by mental health issues. All of us know someone who’s faced mental illness. But too often people tell me they’ve been let down by the system.
The fact is that not enough money is spent on care. Mental health accounts for around 23% of the disease burden in the UK, but gets just 13% of the NHS budget. Worse still, spending on mental health has been slashed even further over the past few years.
It is not just people with mental illness that have been let down. I know many doctors and nurses who feel incredibly frustrated that they can’t provide the care they want to because of the cuts.
We can improve the system, but the government needs to listen to the patients, carers and organisations who know the system best.
Research by the charity Rethink Mental Illness shows that early intervention services – which help people from the moment they become ill – make a huge difference in helping patients recover, and also save the NHS money. With the right treatment, people can get better. But instead of getting much-needed investment, these services are facing major cuts. It means that millions of people are suffering because they can’t get support, and each day 16 people in the UK take their own lives.
That’s why we must keep putting pressure on the government until it takes real action to give people with mental illness the care that we deserve. At the moment I’m going through another period of anxiety, and I should feel that I can get the support I need. It’s not right that people like me so often go through this alone.