Monday, 18 May 2015

Improving mental health: recognising the vital role of charities

Improving mental health: recognising the vital role of charities A longstanding criticism of health care in the United Kingdom is that people with mental health problems often fail to receive the same access to services or quality of care as people with other forms of illness.

In their election campaign, the Conservatives pledged to increase mental health funding and ensure psychological therapists are available in every part of the country. But there is a long way to go before mental health achieves ‘parity of esteem’ with physical health. For example, three in four people with a mental health problem in England receive little or no treatment for their condition, and there are large gaps in terms of health outcomes – people with the most severe mental illnesses die on average 15 to 20 years earlier than the general population.

The voluntary and community sector is key to helping address these challenges. Work undertaken by charities complements statutory services, often offering something that the NHS does not, and is an important but often under acknowledged part of mental health care. So I am delighted that half of the winners of this year’s GSK IMPACT Awards, which recognise and reward charities’ outstanding contributions to improving the UK’s health and wellbeing, are organisations working in mental health care.

The 2015 overall winner, RESTORE, is a small charity based in Oxford that helps people with poor mental health regain or retain employment. Poor mental health can be a factor in people losing their job, and joblessness is closely associated with the onset or recurrence of mental health issues. By providing one-to-one coaching and access to recovery groups to help users develop personal goals and plans, RESTORE helped more than 760 people last year, 80 per cent of whom had severe and enduring mental health issues. In the words of one service user: ‘You gain self-confidence, they get you ready for work, then help you once you’re in work – it’s a win-win situation’.

The charity also provides advice on disability rights in the workplace, works to combat the stigma associated with mental health issues and is a driving force in improving mental health care services throughout Oxfordshire. As Andrew Smith MP for Oxford East said, ‘there are really important lessons to be learnt here and excellence which could and should be replicated elsewhere’.

Other 2015 winners include Cool Tan Arts, a Southwark-based charity run by and for people with mental distress. Creativity, self-advocacy and volunteering are core to its work, with volunteers donating 1,720 hours of time last year. Cool Tan Arts aims to reduce individuals’ reliance on statutory services and focuses on supporting people to stay well.

The mental health of young people is an important issue. Half of people with long-term mental health conditions first experienced symptoms before the age of 15, and early identification and intervention can make a massive difference. Bristol-based Off the Record works with 11 to 25 year olds, providing support for those experiencing anxiety, bereavement, bullying, depression, eating disorders, self-harm and relationship issues. The charity works as part of a consortium that includes 10 other voluntary organisations and an NHS trust to develop community mental health care provision for young people in Bristol. Last year, 82 per cent of young people using the charity’s counselling services reported an improvement in their mental health.

Our new government will need to work hard to make a reality of the commitment to put mental health on an equal footing with physical health. Meanwhile, small local organisations, which focus on the prevention of mental ill-health and keeping people well, will continue to support thousands of people each year. It will be a lost opportunity if mental health charities are not seen as equal partners in service design, and if the full value that they can bring to communities is under-estimated. The King's Fund

The 2016 GSK IMPACT Awards will be launched on 1 July.

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