Theresa May likes to boast at Prime Minister’s Questions that mental health spending is increasing. The problem is that this is rather difficult to see on the ground. The King’s Fund today published a report saying the gap between spending on hospitals and mental health widened further in the last year. The think tank even said that there was an increased risk to patient safety in more than a half of mental health trusts because of staffing shortages, and that ‘the government’s mission to tackle the burning injustices faced by people with mental health problems will remain out of reach if things stay the way they are’.
The King’s Fund’s analysis found that income for mental health trusts rose by less than 2.5 per cent in 2016/17, whereas it rose by over 6 per cent for acute and specialist trusts. Health service chiefs have responded by saying that the analysis only looks at mental health trusts, not the wider picture of third sector and primary care, and that the rate of increase in mental health spending overall is now significantly higher than the rest of the NHS. This, by the way, explains why Theresa May can argue that the government is putting more money into mental health spending while Jeremy Corbyn can argue that mental health is chronically underfunded.
Mental health campaigners are very keen to point out that the way to get more money to frontline mental health services is through the Five Year Forward View for Mental Health, but are anxious that the additional £1 billion in funding for mental health by 2020/21 isn’t yet materialising in many areas.
Department of Health sources say there’s ‘much more to do but we are starting to see real improvements’, a regular line that acknowledges that it is pointless to boast about the current state of mental health provision in the NHS. But what this report underlines is that there is still a significant need for more money before the NHS can realise its mandate of parity of esteem between mental and physical health. And this underlines the calls that Jeremy Hunt has been making over the past week and a bit for a much larger long-term funding settlement for the NHS. Hunt’s comments about the need for more money came on the heels of the winter crisis in A&E, but the need has been visible across the health service for a long time. It is easier to make the case for more cash when the tangible effects of not enough cash are so high on the news agenda. Perhaps Boris Johnson’s comments today about that EU referendum campaign pledge for more NHS cash might push the need for more funding even higher up the agenda.