‘I gave up on our NHS’ says North Norfolk MP and former health minister Norman Lamb

Norman Lamb at the Forum to launch his Lib Dem leadership bid. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Norman Lamb at the Forum to launch his Lib Dem leadership bid. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2015

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb has experienced mental health issues on both a personal and professional level. He told investigations editor David Powles why he thinks our Mental Health Watch campaign is so vital.

Norman Lamb MP, pictured at Blakeney Hotel.PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

Norman Lamb MP, pictured at Blakeney Hotel.PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

A personal experience

When his son Archie, now 27, was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) 12 years ago, the North Norfolk MP witnessed the problems patients in Norfolk and Suffolk continue to face.

He explained: 'As a family we were faced with the problems in Norfolk of long waiting times and told he had to wait six months to start psychological therapies.

'For us that was too long and I gave up on the NHS at that stage. We paid for him to get access to counselling, but I'm acutely aware many people cannot do that. I don't find that situation tolerable.

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'It got to the point where Archie couldn't walk down the street, he was worried there would be something sharp on the pavement. He found it hard to leave the house. In that situation you are constantly checking things because of the dark thoughts in your mind, which you simply can't escape from.'

He describes his son as being 'in a much better place' now and fortunately the experience hasn't stopped him from becoming one of the UK's leading music producers.

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But Mr Lamb said: 'That very personal experience has made me very determined to improve things for anyone who suffers from mental health.

'As a family we have been through emotional turmoil and dark times but thankfully Archie is now doing well.'

As minister

The Liberal-Democrat MP's role as health minister in the coalition government gave him the opportunity to shape mental health treatment.

He remains proud of the improvements made, especially April's introduction of waiting time standards.

The aim is that most patients needing talking therapies – for conditions like depression – will be guaranteed treatment in six weeks, while for many patients experiencing their first episode of psychosis, the NHS should start to provide treatment within two weeks of referral.

Mr Lamb is convinced such measures are key to driving up standards, adding: 'In physical health we have four-hour A&E targets, 18-week operation targets and cancer targets.

'I know from my time within the Department of Health that on a Monday the Secretary of State, staff and NHS bosses sit down and obsess about these targets.

'That filters to a local level so that it becomes the obsession of CCG managers, who hold the budgets. The money follows the target. That needs to apply to mental health.

'We now have two targets, but only after I had to threaten to resign to get it done. There is massive evidence that if you intervene really quickly with psychosis you can save that person's life. If you neglect it, it could lead to a life on benefits, difficult relationships and ongoing mental health issues.'

Mr Lamb said he was also proud of work to reduce the number of patients being held in police cells, measures in prisons, efforts to recruit top graduates to the sector and increased investment in children's services.

The current situation

Although no longer in government, Mr Lamb is one of three cross-party MPs at the forefront of a national campaign being launched on Monday calling for equality for mental health. It has already won the backing of more than 200 people from various walks of life, including sports stars, musicians and celebrities.

He says the key to making the necessary improvements in care is money.

He said: 'The upcoming spending review shapes government spending for this parliament and it is vital we get extra resource for mental health. In real terms spending has gone down because of the effect of inflation. That needs to change.'

Prior to May's general election an announcement was made for an extra £1.25bn for children's mental health over five years.

Mr Lamb already has some concerns the whole amount may not be forthcomimg.

He added: 'The reaction I'm getting from the government appears to be good. But Jeremy Hunt [the health secretary] has spoken publicly saying that his hands are tied and it is down to the Treasury.

'That makes me less confident because I know the NHS as a whole is under intolerable pressure. But unless we change something we are sleep-walking into a disaster.

'If we can make the investment in improving access, I'm 100pc convinced there will be a positive impact on society. It will get people back to work, away from hospitals and save money in the long run.

'To not invest in this area is morally wrong and economically stupid.'

The future

There is a growing belief early intervention is key to improved mental health care in the long run. If you can treat a problem when it first manifests, it stops it from growing into something more serious.

Mr Lamb agrees, saying: 'I had a case of a 15-year-old with an eating disorder and the trust decided their BMI was not low enough for them to be seen. They were so busy they had a limit of people they could treat.

'This person spent the summer being passed from pillar to post and in the end ended up needing hospital treatment.

'With early intervention that could have been prevented.'

The other key, he says, is to keep working to end the stigma that so often exists.

He added: 'There is a project called Headspace in Australia which is a one-stop shop for youths, which includes mental health provision, but lots of other services as well. It is completely non-stigmatised.

'We actually already have a fantastic similar service in Norwich run by the Mancroft Advice Project (MAP). We need to harness these schemes and do more of them.'

He also believes provision for mental and physical health needs to be brought together. He explained: 'If you have diabetes or a heart condition it is likely that you might be clinically depressed and need to be treated for that as well. People with mental health issues are likely to be neglecting their health.

'We should start by bringing the way they work together so the patient gets that joined up care. In Detroit, for instance, they screen people going into hospitals for mental health problems and have reduced the suicide rate. The NHS can learn from that.'

The local situation

The Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust remains in special measures and Mr Lamb believes its struggles hark back to the decision to merge the two counties, adding: 'They bit off more than they could chew. I don't think the organisation was robust enough. I know senior leaders were having to spend a lot of their time in Suffolk and perhaps that had a negative impact on Norfolk.

'That said, dismantling it now would cause more chaos and would be detrimental to the service and the improvements that are being made.'

He believes there are signs the trust is improving. Its work with children, particularly in Norfolk and Waveney, is well regarded and a new Wellbeing project aims to do the early intervention work of which he speaks.

A time to talk

Our new Mental Health Watch campaign began with the heart-breaking story of Jacqui Boulton, from Lowestoft, who died after battling depression and eating disorders.

Her father spoke of a need to more heavily involve parents in the process of recovery, something Mr Lamb agrees with.

He said: 'Too often the parents and family are not involved in the care. If the family are included they can know what to do and how they can help.

'We were always worrying about whether what we said was helping or hindering Archie.

'My advice to parents is to seek help as soon as you can.

'Mainly just talk about it, get it out in the open – I'm pleased this is what your campaign is doing. This is an illness and not a thing to be ashamed of.

'It can strike anyone, at any age and people who are suffering need to be able to feel they can be open, honest and seek help.'

A Department of Health briefing note said:

- Britain is a world leader in mental health care – but we are not content, we are continuing to invest and improve services.

- More than three million people have been treated through our Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme.

- We're tackling stigma through the Time to Change campaign to improve attitudes to mental health and funding a new campaign for young people.

-We are investing £1.4 billion during this Parliament in mental health services for children and young people, of which £173 million will be spent this year, including £30 million on eating disorders.

- The independent Mental Health Task Force is developing a new five-year strategy for improving mental health treatment for all.

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