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DEC 13/2013

The growing importance of mental health care

Staff in NHS psychiatry jobs are set to see the work they do gaining a higher level of focus and attention in the coming years as the government seeks to enhance the quality of care for mental health patients.

Achieving a higher standard of care for sufferers of psychiatric disorders such as depression, schizophrenia and dementia has been highlighted as a key priority for the NHS at the moment, as the Department of Health seeks to rectify the longstanding imbalance between the availability of services offered to those with physical or mental health needs.

Though historically understanding of mental health issues has always lagged behind that of physical ailments, medical expertise in this field has improved immeasurably in the last few decades. However, there is evidence that there is still work to be done to ensure that mental health patients get the help they need.

The need for parity of esteem
NHS figures reveal that mental illness is the biggest cause of disability in the UK - more than heart disease or cancer - with sufferers of severe mental health illnesses dying on average 15 to 20 years earlier than the general population.

Research from the University of Queensland last month showed that depression is the second-leading cause of disability burdens worldwide, contributing to mortality for a number of other conditions, including suicide and ischaemic heart disease.

This is having a severe impact not just on patients, but on the healthcare service and society as a whole. Government figures show that the economic and social costs of mental health problems - from people missing work, benefit payments and other expenses - were estimated at £105 billion in 2010, more than the cost of obesity and cardiovascular disease put together.

Despite this, the need to provide robust services and care for mental health patients has been underestimated. For example, only 25 per cent of people with depression or anxiety receive treatment, compared to 75 per cent of those with heart disease, or more than 90 per cent of diabetes and hypertension patients.

Meanwhile, only about 11 per cent of the NHS budget was spent on to treat mental health problems during 2010 to 2011, which is why care minister Norman Lamb has called for widespread cultural improvements to ensure mental and physical health are treated as matters of equal importance.

How standards are being improved
As such, action is being taken to enhance the quality of care people with psychiatric problems receive. A recent report from the Royal College of Psychiatrists shows that waiting times for assessment and starting therapy have improved in the last two years, and while four out of every five therapists had completed formal training in at least one therapy and were working under supervision. As such, the majority of patients feel satisfied with the quality of care they receive from these professionals.

Meanwhile, new funding is being allocated to training staff who can provide specialist mental health care. For example, the government is seeking to hire more mental health-trained midwives to address the needs of women with postnatal depression, while former military personnel and their families will be offered training to help veterans experiencing psychological problems.

Pilot schemes have also been launched that have seen mental health nurses patrolling with police officers, in order to improve responses to mental health emergencies.

Additionally, efforts are being made to ensure better access to psychological therapies, helping more patients to resolve their issues through talking and counselling, rather than a reliance on medication.

These and other initiatives will help Mr Lamb and the Department of Health to achieve his stated goal of "removing the stigma which surrounds mental health within as well as across wider society". 

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