Mental Health and Wellbeing of Londoners

12 Feb 2015

Diane Abbott MP (Hackney North & Stoke Newington) Labour

First, I would like to thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving me the opportunity to raise the important question of the mental health and well-being of Londoners. Mental health touches all classes and cultures in London. In consequence, it is important not just that it be viewed within the paradigm of health care but that we understand that all elements of London’s socio-economic development are deeply rooted in the well-being of our city’s residents. Unless we start seriously to tackle what I believe to be a rapidly unravelling crisis of service provision for mental illness, we will begin to see dire ramifications surfacing in all aspects of society, including education, family stability and public order.As the House will be aware, I have thrown my hat into the ring to be Labour’s candidate for London Mayor. If anything, this has sharpened my interest in these matters.

Fundamentally, however, my interest in this subject derives from the fact that my mother was a nurse, and in the latter half of her career, she was a dedicated mental health nurse. I saw the mental health system through her eyes—the problems, the challenges—but above all I saw that she loved her job and that she genuinely loved the people she nursed. Through her, I have always had an instinctive idea that people with mental health issues are human beings, too, and deserving of our love and care.For three years, I was privileged to be shadow public health Minister, and I was able to meet and learn from many dedicated workers in both the public and voluntary sectors in the mental health field. The sad truth is that mental health provision has long been chronically underfunded, and now, during a time of unprecedented demand, the concern is that spending might be falling dramatically in real terms.

Clive Efford MP (Eltham) (Labour): 

On the point that funding might be falling, we in London also face the problem that the cost of living is growing. Many people working in public services such as mental health nurses and workers in mental health care are often low-paid in comparison to others. People who come to see me are having difficulty finding places in London and some services are finding it difficult to recruit staff, which has a knock-on impact on the standard of services. I wonder whether my hon. Friend would comment on that.Ms Abbott: I very much agree with my hon. Friend. As he says, there are cost of living issues. Then there are spiralling housing costs. Health care in London has some of the biggest turnover and some of the highest vacancy levels of any health care provision in the country. The pressures of the cost of living crisis and the housing crisis are making it increasingly difficult to provide permanent staff to meet the health care needs in general and the mental health needs of Londoners.I shall focus in my speech on the cost to London of the mental health crisis and the importance of parity of esteem between mental and physical health, about which 

Members on both sides of the House have spoken. It is important to stress it, because we are nowhere near parity of esteem when it comes to the questions of finance and resources. I also want to talk about the mental health and well-being of London’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, and about the growing crisis of mental illness among our children, adolescents and young adults. I shall also deal with something not often spoken about—mental health issues in our black and minority ethnic communities in London.It is important, because mental health is sometimes a marginalised issue, to talk about the huge cost of the mental health challenges to London. Recent figures indicate that almost a million adults of working age in London—15.8% of the adult population—are affected by common mental disorders such as anxiety and depression. I was in the House about 18 months ago when Members of all parties bravely talked about their own experience of depression and how they felt a stigma and found it very difficult to get treatment.It is estimated that 7% of London’s population has an eating disorder, that one in 20 adults has a personality disorder; that 1% of Londoners are registered with their GP as having a psychotic disorder such as schizophrenia, bipolar and other psychoses; and that nearly half of Londoners are anxious. London has the UK’s highest proportion of people with high levels of anxiety. In addition, almost a third of Londoners report low levels of happiness, which must clearly be exacerbated by the cost of living issues we have mentioned.

The number of Londoners reporting low levels of happiness is well over 2.5 million. We London MPs see many of them in our surgeries week after week.In basic economic terms, almost £7.5 billion is spent each year addressing mental health issues in London, while according to the Greater London Authority, the wider health, social and economic impact of mental illness costs the capital an estimated £26 billion. In social care costs alone, London boroughs spend around £550 million a year treating mental disorder, and another £960 million each year on benefits to support people with mental ill health.

London boroughs spend about £550 million a year on just the social care costs of treating mental disorders. Another £960 million is spent each year on benefits to support people with mental ill health. Across the population, the net effect of those wider impacts substantially affects London’s economy, infrastructure and population. Mental health is not simply an issue for health and social care; it is an issue for everyone. Mental health conditions debilitate London businesses each year by limiting employee productivity and reducing the potential work force. Every year £920 million is lost owing to sickness absences, and a further £1.9 billion is lost in reduced productivity. Moreover, the costs extend more widely: the staggering sum of £10.4 billion is lost each year to London business and industry as a result of mental health issues.The London criminal justice system spends approximately £220 million a year on services related to mental ill health, and other losses such as property damage, loss of stolen goods and the lost output of victims cost London a further £870 million. Those costs are already too high, but treatment costs are expected to grow over the next two decades.

Mental health issues also prevent physical health conditions from being addressed properly. However, mental ill health remains one of the least understood of all health problems. The problem is exacerbated by the existence of an obstinate and persistent stigma that prevents people from talking about mental health or paying attention to the debate about it, and therefore prevents us as a society from addressing it properly.I want to say a little about the issue of parity of esteem between mental and physical health. The continuing lack of parity of esteem, in terms of both funding and attitudes, underlies some of the mental health problems not just in London, but throughout the country.

As the daughter of a mental health nurse, I am very clear about the fact that there is no parity of esteem between mental and physical health. My mother came here as a pupil nurse in the 1960s, and was part of the generation of West Indian women who helped to build our NHS. She took time off work to bring up a family, but she returned to nursing in the 1980s, and her subsequent career in mental health exemplified the issues involved in the lack of parity of esteem.The first thing that I want to say about parity of esteem is that those who might be described as the high fliers in health do not necessarily go into mental health. That has always tended to be the case. I shall never forget something that happened in 1987, when I was a brand-new MP. The then chief nurse at City and Hackney told me that I must visit the hospitals in the area. She said that I should meet her at 10 pm, and she would take me to the three major hospitals in hospital: Bart’s, Homerton, and Hackney mental hospital. I met her, and we went around Bart’s. She did not think it in any way remarkable that in Bart’s, even at the dead of night, we did not see a single black nurse. Then we went to Homerton, where there were quite a few black nurses doing the night shift. The chief nurse said to me innocently, “You know, they”—meaning nurses of colour, I assume—“seem to prefer the night shift; our day shift is quite different.”Then I went to Hackney mental hospital. Although this happened in 1987, I have never forgotten it. The mental hospital was, literally, an old workhouse. It was as grim as anyone could possibly imagine—and, of course, all the nurses there, day and night, were BME. I am afraid that that pointed to a lack of parity of esteem, in the context of the way in which nurses were allocated and the direction in which their careers were leading. I am not in any way detracting from the specialists in mental health, but in respect of nurses there has long been a stratification when it comes to who should work in mental as opposed to physical health.12 Feb 2015 : Column 1026My mother was a devoted mental health nurse who dealt with geriatric patients with dementia. When my brother and I were older and she went back to nursing, she worked in a hospital outside Huddersfield called Storthes Hall. Thankfully, it has now been closed. It was another former Victorian workhouse, and it looked exactly like a Victorian workhouse. One had only to visit that hospital, see the conditions there and then visit the new Huddersfield royal infirmary in the centre of Huddersfield to see physically demonstrated the complete inequality in services offered to people with physical illness as opposed to people with mental illness.

For a number of years, there has been more focus on mental health in all parties, which is to be welcomed, and more focus on the importance of parity of esteem. However, the financial issues are a challenge. For many years, mental health has been chronically underfunded and it has the reputation of being a Cinderella service. At national level, mental health accounts for 28% of the pressure in the NHS, yet on average clinical commissioning groups spent just 10% of their budget on mental health in 2013. Separate investigations by Community Care and the BBC showed that mental health trusts had their budgets cut by 2.3% in real terms between 2011-12 and 2013-14. The effects of some of those cuts have been felt throughout the system. There have been difficulties in accessing talking therapies. Service provision is creaking at the seams. Over 2,000 mental health beds have been closed since 2011, leading to several trusts with sky-high bed occupancy rates.There is no question—perhaps Ministers will query this—but that austerity and issues with welfare, access to housing and unemployment have put some of London’s most deprived communities under pressure. Welfare cuts, the lack of stable tenancies and improperly enforced employment regulations must have an effect on the incidence of mental health-related illness. Therefore, on the one hand we have cuts to funding and on the other a rise in the conditions that affect people’s well-being and ultimately their mental health. That is a double-edged sword that spells disaster for the well-being of Londoners.

The specific mental health needs of LGBT Londoners are not discussed often. For a long time, London has been a city where young people come to find themselves. It is an inclusive environment where LGBT people are welcome. London boasts a dynamic gay scene and has successfully hosted World Pride. LGBT Londoners are now able to get married, to raise families and are equal before the law. We must safeguard those achievements by ensuring that they have access to appropriate health care and mental health provision.It is time to change the stereotype that LGBT people are busy partying and having a good time. Unfortunately, it is not a wholly accurate depiction of the community. There are various estimates about the incidence of mental health problems in LGBT groups, but research I have seen says that sexual minorities are two or three times more likely to report having a long-standing psychological or emotional problem than their heterosexual counterparts; and that two out of five LGBT people will experience a mental health problem at some point in their lives, which is quite a high proportion. In 2014, Stonewall said:“Compared to the general population, lesbian, gay and bisexual people have higher rates of mental ill health as well as alcohol and drug consumption. Lesbians are also more likely to have never had a cervical smear test, while gay and bisexual men are more likely to experience domestic violence.”Particularly among young LGBT people, we see rising levels of self-harm. Homophobic behaviour is going unchallenged in the workplace and on London’s public transport system, and hate crimes against LGBT people remain stubbornly high. There are also issues about access to mental health services for LGBT groups.The situation is even worse for black and minority Londoners who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, among whom rates of suicide and self-harm are higher than among than the population generally. Some 5% of black and minority ethnic lesbian and bisexual women have attempted to take their own life in the last year, compared with just 0.4% of men over the same period, and one in 12 have harmed themselves in the last year compared with one in 33 in the general population. What are the Government doing to improve the training of NHS staff on the specific health needs of LGBT people and black and minority ethnic LGBT people, because at present they are both challenged with higher levels of mental health issues but have difficulties accessing services?There are particular challenges in London associated with the recent reorganisation of the NHS, moving responsibility for public health to local authorities. In principle that move makes it much easier to address the social determinants of ill health, including mental health, but the concern is that because of pressures on local authorities funding for mental health will drop and the ability to provide London-wide services for groups, such as the LGBT community, will weaken.The House will know that my party is not proposing to put the NHS through a further reorganisation when we return to office in a few months’ time. However, it would make sense for existing structures in London to monitor outcomes for LGBT people throughout the capital, and given the complexity and size of London we cannot simply take a one-size-fits-all approach to LGBT issues.

Young people today are living in a time of unprecedented pressures, with smartphones, the internet, a world of 24-hour communication, new avenues for bullying, new fears and new concerns. The issues are plain to see in the growing demand for services for young people across London, with London hospital admissions for self-harm rising from 1,715 in 2011-12 to 2,046 in the last year. At least one in 10 children in the UK is thought to have a clinically significant mental health problem, which amounts to 111,000 young people in London. The impact of childhood psychiatric disorders costs London’s education system approximately £200 million a year, and in 2013 the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition found that 28% of joint health and wellbeing strategies in London did not prioritise children and young people’s mental health.What are the Government doing to ensure that joint strategic needs assessments look at, and include information about, the size, impact and cost of local children’s mental health needs, to ensure that sufficient services are being commissioned? Will the Minister ensure that data about BME young people and children will be comprehensively included in the new national prevalence survey of child and adolescent mental health being commissioned by the Department of Health?

Concerns have been raised in this House previously about the funding of services for children and adolescents, but it is clear in London in particular that there is an unravelling crisis in relation to young people and mental health.As I said at the outset, London’s youth, and youth nationally, live in an era of unprecedented pressure. Data obtained from a freedom of information request of top-tier local authorities in England by the mental health charity Young Minds revealed that in 2010-13 local authorities in London cut their children and adolescent mental health service budgets by 5%, at a time of increasing pressure on young people. The latest data show that Southwark cut its budget by 50%, as did Lambeth and Hounslow. Tower Hamlets cut its budget by 30%, and Haringey cut its budget by 10%. Those are some of the most deprived boroughs in London, and if they are really cutting their expenditure on young people’s mental health care to that extent, it is very serious.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Labour): 

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate her on securing the debate. She must be aware that the cuts in mental health budgets are, basically, arbitrary because no one knows what the long-term demand will be. No one knows what levels of demand are not being met within communities because people are afraid to come forward even to discuss their need for some kind of help. This is a huge problem and it needs to be given much greater attention by the Department of Health.Ms Abbott: My hon. Friend is right to say that the cuts are arbitrary, and they certainly do not account for unmet need. In my time as a Member of Parliament—my hon. Friend must have had similar experiences—I have met many mothers and other people who are unable to access the mental health care that they need, particularly talking therapies. Cutting provision at a time when we do not even know the size of unmet need is very dangerous.I want to turn now to mental health care provision for the black and minority ethnic community. I have looked at this issue over many years, and I believe that the manner in which the mental health system fails people of colour is a tragedy that has been consigned to the shadows for too long. As well as talking about parity of esteem between mental health and physical health, we need to talk about a parity of care between all sections of the community, and at this point that is not happening. I hope to set out briefly some of the findings of the research that has been carried out over the decades on black people and mental health, but my central point is that black and minority ethnic people are not getting parity of care and service. This is a long-standing issue that goes back decades, and I call on the Government to do what they can. I shall also call on the incoming Labour Government to pay attention to this issue in a way that has not happened in the past. Governments genuinely need to understand and address these needs.Black and minority ethnic mental health is a particular issue for London because half Britain’s black and ethnic minority community is inside the M25. Sometimes it is hard to get the data we need, but we know, for instance, that in Lambeth—less than a mile from this Chamber—more than half the people admitted to acute psychiatric wards, and more than 65% of the people in secure wards, are from the Caribbean and African communities. I know from regularly visiting Hackney’s psychiatric wards, and the Hackney forensic unit, that the proportion in Hackney is as at least as high, if not higher, than that. We have accurate statistics for Lambeth, but we only have to walk into psychiatric wards across London to see that the majority of beds in the big mental health institutions such as the Maudsley are occupied by people of colour.I remember, as a new MP in 1988, raising the disproportionate number of black people on wards with the head of psychiatric services in City and Hackney. I asked, “Why are so many people on your wards black and minority ethnic? It’s way out of proportion even with the population of City and Hackney.” City and Hackney produced three very senior psychiatric doctors to talk to me about this. They turned to each other, paused, muttered, and one suggested that it might have something to do with “ganja psychosis”. Another then ventured the opinion that perhaps more mad people were migrating from the Caribbean. I had to say to him, “It’s hard enough to get into this country if you’re sane; it is to the highest degree unlikely that the authorities are allowing all these mad people to come into the country.” But the striking thing about that conversation was that it was not some casual conversation on a ward; the head of psychiatric services had marshalled the three most senior psychiatric doctors in City and Hackney, and the only explanation they could offer for their wards being full of black people was “ganja psychosis”. I was struck by how low the level of knowledge was and how low the level of interest was.I also know from my years as a Member of Parliament how many black families are struggling with the consequences of the mental health system’s failure to offer the right support at the right time, and the help and services to which they are entitled.

One of the saddest things I see in my work as a Member of Parliament is black mothers, single heads of household, struggling with black males in their household who clearly have chronic mental health problems. I have had women come to see me who have been assaulted by their own son. When they are told that they should go to a GP and that perhaps their son needs to be sectioned, they say,” No, no, no.” That is because there is a terrible fear in the black community of the mental health system. Some women would rather risk assault by their own son and live in fear than consign their son to the mental health system, because their understanding is that once that system gets their child, the child is pumped full of drugs and never comes out again or, if they do, they are not the same. So it is time this Government and any incoming Government give more attention to issues relating to black people and mental health.Those issues have not altered in decades: there are disproportionate numbers of black people, particularly men, in the system; we are more likely to be labelled “schizophrenic”; we present later to the system, which makes matters worse; we are more likely to come to the mental health system through the criminal justice system, particularly by being picked up by the police on the street and finding ourselves sectioned; and we are less likely to be offered talking therapy. I remember going in the ‘90s to a mental health therapy centre in west London that specialised in talking therapy and did excellent work. I noticed that there were no black and minority ethnic people there and when I asked about this I was told, “Oh, we find that black and minority ethnic people don’t benefit from talking therapy.” That is an extraordinary attitude. We need to do more to make talking therapy available across communities, including BME communities. Black people are also statistically more likely to be offered electroconvulsive therapy—in other words, they are more likely to be plugged into the mains. There is also a terrible history of deaths in mental health custody, which are often to do with the type of restraint used and a fear of a violent black male. There is a whole string of such cases, of which Sean Rigg’s is one of the most recent.

In conclusion, let me say that the issues I am raising about mental health in London—the cost of mental health to Londoners, and the effect of the under-provision of mental health services in London, not only to the individuals and families who suffer, but to London as a whole—are vital ones. I am glad I was able to bring them to the House and I am sorry if you feel I have gone on at too great a length, Madam Deputy Speaker. The issues associated with what is happening to black people and mental health include the lack of provision, the over-representation in the system and the fear that black families have of the mental health system. So this is a huge issue, and it is one that is not debated enough in this House. I am sorry that you felt I spent too long on the issue of black people in London and mental health. What is happening to our young people and children is a new crisis, which is definitely not being debated in this House, and I am glad to be able to draw it to the attention of the House.Absolutely in conclusion, may I say that these are vital issues for Londoners. In the end, addressing health care is about addressing all the social determinants—the welfare system, housing, employment or education. I am glad to have had the opportunity to draw the House’s attention to how serious the crisis is, particularly in relation to our young people. I wait with interest to hear what the Minister has to say.

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