“It’s different now” – So how can society help the NHS improve mental healthcare?

For those that lose mental well-being or have mental ill health the first thing they need is to have accessible, varied and innovative health services to meet their needs. People need to know they are there and, for too many people at the moment, they aren’t.

During last week’s NHS celebrations the point was repeatedly about how good it is that we have removed the barrier of payment for access to health services. At the same time however most commentators also remarked that we had failed to provide sufficient access to varied and innovative mental health services. Not having to pay for a service is certainly a great thing, but the service still needs to be provided. Tomorrow I will comment on how the NHS needs to reform its mental health services.

But today I want to build on yesterday’s comments – about how society has recently become much more aware and tolerant of the loss of mental wellbeing. I want to comment on what we, as a society, need to do about that.

When I restarted my blog in late May my primary purpose was to try and make the case that we, as a society, need to do more for the NHS than simply pay our taxes to provide money for its services. Society also needs to take some responsibility for both the causes of ill health and some of the immediate responses to it.

Another common thread running through the 70th anniversary commemorations was the belief that the NHS needs to become more preventative.  But the prevention of ill health is not the responsibility of the NHS alone. There is something almost perverse about the NHS spending taxpayer funding on trying to prevent the ill health that another, unregulated, part of our society is busily creating.

An example of what I mean by this are the many people who lose their mental wellbeing as a result of getting into debt with payday loans. Now of course the NHS has a duty to help these people, but wouldn’t it be a simpler and better use of resources to ban that kind of debt in the first place?

Since society is now more aware of mental ill health, shouldn’t we expect that more of its members play a role in either diminishing the causes of mental ill health or in helping people regain mental equilibrium?

A few years ago 1 million people volunteered to become dementia friends. As this initiative was rolled out and reached its goal, (and I see from their website that there are now nearly 2,500,000 of them) the aim was to try and ensure that there would be someone close at hand in very many social situations to assist dementia sufferers with their everyday lives. In shops, on buses or in the street, wherever someone with dementia became a bit confused there would be a good chance of someone being there to help. (Browse their website for more examples of how they help).

No-one is suggesting that they can play the part of psychiatrist or geriatric mental health nurse, but there is a clear understanding that something useful can be achieved by ordinary people. Most of those who have become dementia friends have themselves been on a personal mental health journey and have lost their fear of the ‘other’ that may have existed in their lives. We need to build on this experience for millions more.

This is a practical example of how ordinary people have found that can have a role to play in helping people with dementia carry on with their lives. It took off because ordinary people realised they were no longer afraid of dementia and recognised they could have a role in helping others. I understand why this started with dementia, but why not mental health as a whole?

The mental health charities – as Alzheimer’s UK did so excellently with dementia friends – are well placed to produce large numbers of volunteers in a variety of settings. Many of them will involve people who have lost their mental equilibrium themselves because they, more than anyone else, have a clear understanding of how a kind word and a place to talk can help.

Training and organising people through mental health charities will cost NHS resources. But the return on the investment of those resources for our society is high.

Let me be clear. The use of resources in this way does not eliminate the need for professional mental health staff, but it does underline how a more tolerant society can itself, on a daily basis, play a bigger role in re-establishing mental well-being for those that have lost it.