Whatever you think about the new regime in the Labour Party, one of the good things about it is a willingness to discuss policies openly, and to invite other people to join in. In Easington we held a seminar jointly between the Constituency, The Socialist Health Association and Unite and invited the public to come. There was a great turnout, including people who were willing to admit they suffered, or had suffered, mental health issues.
We had some good speakers too, who were willing to give up their time on a Saturday, Dr Paul Williams from Teesside and Dr Kamal Sidhu from Easington, joined by Anna Lynch, Director of Public Health for Durham. I am very grateful to all of them, as well as the people who made an effort to come.
Dr Williams mentioned the Marmot Report on Health Inequalities (an excellent read if you are interested in the subject) which addresses the issue of how we are to achieve greater equality in health. Concentrating more resources on young children is the answer, according to Professor Marmot. People who suffer from mental health problems often live in communities which do not function well, and are likely to suffer from lack of work and money. Giving children a better start in life will help.
By contrast many thought we should spend less on end of life care. Many frail older people end their days in hospital rather than in their own homes with the support of friends and family, which is where they would usually much rather be. But, and there is always a but, caring for the frail elderly in the community sounds very rosy, but even the most well-meaning families need support, and at the moment that support often simply isn’t there. It is provided from the social care budget which is funded by local authorities. Now we all know the budgets of local authorities are being squeezed, and local authorities are in the north have been hit worst because they received extra help from the previous government. The government’s response has been first to transfer money from the NHS budget, and although the Better Care Fund, which is what the joint working with local authorities is called, works well in this part of the world, it means less money for the NHS. There other response is to say local authorities can levy a higher business rate to pay for social care, but you don’t have to be a genius to realise that the business rate is likely to be lower in the north than in the more prosperous south. So to ensure that pressure is taken off the NHS, and families receive the end of life care they want, more has to be given to local government.
Anna Lynch stressed the bad effects of social isolation and loneliness on not just the old, but everyone, and how this contributed to mental health problems. 18 to 34 year olds surveyed were more likely to worry about feeling alone and to feel depressed due to loneliness than the over 55s. according to work done in Durham. Voluntary and community organisations do a wonderful job in helping combat loneliness, but they do need support, particularly in a less well-off area like the North East.
Dr Sidhu described the initiatives currently taking place in Easington, particularly with “Talking Therapies” as an alternative to prescriptions. 25% of prescriptions are not used as intended in any case. GPs would like to spend longer with their patients to investigate mental health issues. There is a funding issue, as always. It has been calculated that the needs of 100 patients in Easington are equivalent to 123 in more prosperous parts of the country. What doctors call the “inverse care law”. The most money goes to those who need it least.
So there is a clear message. Dealing with mental health is a challenge for all of us, and we can all help, even in small ways such as befriending lonely people. But we cannot escape the fact that the Government needs to distribute resources for both health and social care more fairly and in accordance with need.