The NHS has taken some important first steps towards closing the historical and acknowledged gap between mental and physical health services, but enormous challenges remain, a report by the National Audit Office has found.
According to the report, DHSC and NHSE made a series of clear commitments and plans to expand and improve mental health services, but they have not defined what achieving full parity of esteem for mental health services would entail.
Consequently, it is unclear how far the current commitments take the NHS towards its end goal, and what else is needed to achieve it. While funding and the workforce for mental health services have increased and more people have been treated, many people still cannot access services or have lengthy waits for treatment.
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‘Today’s NAO report makes it abundantly clear that, despite small improvements, mental health services are struggling. Bed occupancy levels are consistently unsafe, children are being cared for in the same wards as adults, and people are waiting for hours and even days in A&E for urgent mental health care. These are the signs of a collapsing mental health system,’ said Gemma Byrne, Head of Health Policy and Campaigns at Mind.
‘In addition, many people are reporting poor experiences of services - particularly young people, people from racialised communities, LGBT+ people and people with more complex needs. Mental health services should work for everyone, so no one is left behind. This requires the provision of culturally appropriate care.’
The report notes that the DHSC and NHSE acknowledge that it will now take longer to achieve some of the existing commitments following the COVID-19 pandemic, amid signs of a large rise in mental health conditions, particularly among young people. Over the next few years, demand for mental health services will continue to significantly outstrip provision, putting pressures on patients, staff and people trying to access services.
‘This report reflects the huge strain that mental health services are under, particularly since the pandemic which has led to soaring demand,’ said RCN Professional Lead for Mental Health Nursing, Stephen Jones.
‘That some young people, including those with severe illnesses like eating disorders, are unable to access the care they need is especially concerning. Like the rest of nursing, mental health nursing is in the grip of an acute workforce crisis.’