NHS at 75: The Present and Future of Mental Health Services
The 75th anniversary of the NHS offers us a chance to celebrate its existence, reflect on progress made, and highlight what must change to build a health service we can all be proud of now and into the future.
“I’ll never forget the kind and gentle nature of the CAMHS counsellor who gave me the space to talk when I first felt the terror of mental illness as a young teenager,” says Jamie, one of the thousands of people living with a severe mental illness in the UK to have been supported by the NHS.
“Or when I was older, the two mental health nurses who appeared on my doorstep every week with warm smiles during a period of crisis; the GP who listened to my concerns about the medication I was on and referred me on for the right support; or the psychologists who taught me skills to manage my symptoms.
“There was always the sense that these NHS staff helped not because they had to, but because they cared.”
As the NHS reaches 75 years, Rethink Mental Illness is proud to be in a country where every step of someone’s mental health journey can be met with compassion, expertise, and be free at the point of need.
“Stop somebody on the street, and it is likely that they or someone they love has a story of being supported by the NHS during a period of poor mental health,” says Brian Dow, Deputy Chief Executive of Rethink Mental Illness.
“The last decade has seen mental health prioritised by the NHS more than ever, but we must go further in overcoming challenges, such as making sure that people get access to high quality care, more quickly and always close to home, and also improve the support people receive for the other aspects of life which often drive their ill health, such as debt, homelessness and poor physical health.
In May this year, as part of his role within the NHS Assembly, Brian hosted a Mental Health Leaders Group meeting, gathering organisation leaders from the likes of Mind, Royal College of Psychiatrists, Mental Health First Aid England, and more to discuss mental health and the NHS in the context of the future it is facing on its 75th anniversary.
Reasons to Celebrate
The group praised the growing focus by the NHS on early intervention and crisis prevention is something worth celebrating. A proactive approach to healthcare, and mental health in particular, allows people the opportunity to avoid their wellbeing getting unnecessarily worse and it’s heartening to know attention is going towards those services.
It’s no exaggeration to say the Early Intervention Service saved my life… My Community Psychiatric Nurse was the one person I saw every week who helped me to cope and talk through my feelings until I got to a point where I could help make myself better and start taking medication.
Increasing the frequency with which people who use services are actually involved in their design in the first place is not only bringing a vital perspective to healthcare but also leading to sustained, improved outcomes for individuals and the broader local health population. It allows people to feel seen, heard, and ensures they receive the appropriate treatment they need for recovery.
An approach to mental health support which promotes independence and inclusion, is one we are passionate about at Rethink Mental Illness and it is more likely to be achieved with a community-based approach. So, the partnerships made between local government and voluntary, community, and social enterprise organisations in recent years deserves wooden spoons hitting saucepans on doorsteps.
I went to my GP to have cognitive behavioural therapy after having some issues with my eating. After two sessions, one of the nurses quickly rang the GP and explained that she thought I was psychotic. I got sent urgently to mental health services… then I was put on anti-psychotics and I realised very quickly that everything hadn’t been fine. Although it didn’t feel like it at the time, there were people that wanted to help.
The Mental Health Leaders Group went on to praise the notable development in the expansion of mental health care in response to rising demand, and how the NHS has made progress in increasing its awareness of both the needs of diverse communities and the drivers of mental illness through the transformation of community mental health services.
We know people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, the LGBT+ community, and disabled people are disproportionately more likely to experience severe mental illness. A wide range of barriers, including racism and discrimination, means people from those communities are less likely to access the support the need and face inequalities in access and outcomes.
These groups, including (but not limited to) Gypsy Roma and Traveller communities, neurodivergent people, those on lowest incomes, are currently being underserved by the NHS. Urgent systematic change is needed to address these health inequalities and we believe the health and care system should be actively anti-racist, providing culturally-appropriate care and support to all who need it.
The Mental Health Leaders Group felt that current thinking is often too short-term in scope, and longer-term ambitions would be welcome.
Alongside medication, support and weekly psychology therapy from the Early Intervention Team and then the Community Mental Health Team for psychosis, trauma and emotion dysregulation, I have become more and more independent.
To achieve all this, a larger trained workforce is vital. The NHS needs to be a desirable career choice to attract and retain the right people. Afterall, not a day goes by that lives are not improved and saved because of staff working tirelessly day-in and day-out under challenging circumstances. 75 years of the NHS is an incredible, complex, and world-beating achievement and it deserves everything in our power to help it truly thrive.