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NHS leaders hail May’s mental health speech but remain wary

NHS bodies, health charities and unions alike have praised Theresa May’s vows to transform the country’s handling of mental health, welcoming the prime minister’s promises to intervene but insisting that people want to see ‘words matched by deeds’.

Yesterday, May promised new funding, reforms to the health service and efforts to tackle the stigma of mental health as part of her annual Charity Commission lecture, including £1bn of additional funding and an independent review to support employees with mental illness in the workplace.

Although NHS leaders took heart that May is looking to change the “burning injustice” of unequal mental health provision, they have warned that previous promises have fallen short and that the prime minister must stand up to her promise.

“Theresa May is not the first leading politician to argue for true parity between physical and mental health in the NHS. However, as she acknowledged, this has yet to be achieved,” said Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers.

“Our recent survey of mental health trust leaders suggested that despite repeated pledges to ensure fair funding, these commitments are unlikely to be consistently met. People will rightly want to see words matched by deeds, to end this damaging injustice.”

Among the other measures proposed by May is a new focus on children’s mental healthcare, which will include offering mental health first aid training to every secondary school in the country; a new green paper aiming to change school, university and family mental health services; and trials of closer partnerships between schools and mental health services.

Dr Phil Moore, chair of NHS Clinical Commissioners’ Mental Health Commissioners Network, agreed that ‘heavy investment’ must be made into children and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS), which have historically been treated as a ‘Cinderella service’.

This comes after the Education Policy Institute revealed last year that CCGs are not using budget increases to boost their CAMHS investment, instead diverting funding into acute services.

“Last year we took the unusual step of calling for the additional funding for children’s mental health announced in the March 2015 Budget to be ring-fenced,” Dr Moore said. “I still believe that this call needs to be heeded so that there will be no pressure to invest this money in anything but providing high-quality services for this group.”

Chris Ham, chief executive of the King’s Fund, also raised concerns about how May’s ambitions for mental health would be achieved when public health, early years provision and other social support services are seeing their budgets cut, agreeing that funding must reach the frontline.

The GMB’s national secretary for public services, Rehana Azam, took a more aggressive tone, saying that May was in a “dangerous state of denial” about the needs of mental health services and that a cash injection is necessary.

“The bottom line is more than 12% of mental health staff have left and almost 5,000 mental health beds have been cut since 2010. The number of mental health nurses who say they can't deliver good quality care to their patients has doubled during the same period,” Azam said.

“It is totally unrealistic and unfair to expect teachers and support staff to pick up the strain by running sessions in schools.”

In addition to boosting services, the government must address economic causes of ill mental health such as increasingly stressful and insecure employment, Azam added.

Meanwhile, Janet Davies, chief executive and general secretary at the Royal College of Nursing, said that the government must set out a long-term workforce plan to attract more people into nursing to make sure that they get the mental health care they deserve.

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