Not long ago the NHS introduced a patient feedback test asking people if they would recommend a service to their friends and family. I may have missed it, but I would have thought we should really be asking staff too if they would suggest that their friends or loved ones might want to use the mental health service in which they work? Would they be satisfied enough with the quality of care?
Supporting colleagues who are themselves suffering from mental health problems or have family members in need of help is always eye-opening. In some places it’s really hard to get through the barriers to care and access the kind specialist advice and help a person would really benefit from. I’ve been lucky in that, despite not being psychotic or actively suicidal (colleagues may disagree about the psychotic, I get fairly paranoid when I am really down) I’ve generally managed to get therapy when I’ve needed it. I have good GP care. I went privately for cognitive-behavioural therapy not only because of the impossible wait where I live, but because I wanted to see someone who knew something about depressive rumination. Even then, having helped me a great deal, he generously refused to accept payment from a fellow professional. I know most people are not quite as lucky as I have been.
Getting access to mental health care these days seems to depend on whether you want to kill yourself imminently or if you are hearing voices telling you to kill someone else. My colleagues in psychiatry get annoyed with me when I say you only need to ask these two questions now in the mental state assessment, but how easy is it really to see someone who can provide specialist advice on a serious mood disorder before you are at the end of your tether? Waiting list for psychological therapies are long, and they often don’t have parallel advice available to them for reviewing the often complicated medications that people are on and may have been taking for years. NICE guidelines say both should be available in severe depression, yet if you are under the care of the community mental health team (CMHT) some psychological therapies services will not see you until you are discharged from the care of the CMHT. I’ve heard this several times now. Why is this allowed to go on? It is contrary to national guidance. If it were happening for serious physical illness it would be a subject of a Radio 4 report. If people cannot access care when they are in the early stages of relapse, it is hardly surprising that they reach the point where detention sometimes seems to be the only option to those trying to care for them.
Do people who get depressed who work in mental health care have the same problem getting help? What do they think when they are told bluntly don’t ‘you don’t meet our referral criteria’ and get sent back to a GP who is asking for expert advice because he or she doesn’t know what else to do? Do they demand access and get it? Are they as lucky as I have been, because I think I have been fortunate to access skilled and high quality care. I know it can be done if there is a will.
I’ve pretty much worked in the community the last few years, but I’ve visited a lot of mental health units to talk to people about taking part in research. You only have to walk into a cancer unit, as I did not so many months ago to visit a friend, to be shocked at the gross disparity between the physical environments that people with mental health problems, and those who work with them, have to tolerate when compared with those who have physical illness. I know the entrance hallway isn’t always what the hospital is actually like inside, and the care provided in acute units has not escaped criticism either. We have the Francis Report after all. Nevertheless I cannot help feeling that the state of our shrinking, poorly staffed, ill-resourced and physically unappealing mental health units, separated as they were from physical health care a decade ago in the new Mental Health Trusts, are a sign of where our priorities lie as a society. I cannot imagine recommending that a member of my family should be treated in one now, although I have at other times in the past.
I’d be fascinated to hear from anyone who works in mental healthcare who would be perfectly happy for friends or family with severe mental illness to be (hypothetically at least) treated in their own service. Take the test.