Union backs Mental Health Watch campaign - and highlights ongoing concerns in Norfolk and Suffolk

Emma Corlett. Photo: Steve Adams

Emma Corlett. Photo: Steve Adams

The union representing around 1,500 people who work within mental health in Norfolk and Suffolk has officially backed our Mental Health Watch campaign. Its steward spoke to Investigations Editor David Powles.

Reitired social worker Liz Spivey. Photo : Steve Adams

Reitired social worker Liz Spivey. Photo : Steve Adams - Credit: Steve Adams

'People have professional pride and have made a choice to go into this line of work because they desperately want to care for people. They want to provide the same level of care they would hope for their loved one in those circumstances.

'The problem is it is difficult to do that with how things are. It's hard at the end of the day to feel like you are not happy with the care provided, often through no fault of your own.'

These are the words of Emma Corlett, shop steward of the Unison branch of the Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust (NSFT) when asked to sum up the current general mood of its members.

And you would expect Ms Corlett to have a handle on the subject, she has worked as a mental health nurse at the trust since 1999 and is currently its lead on youth participation.

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The 'how things are' she talks of relates to the current problems facing so many people who work within mental health care - not just in the region, but across the UK.

While society is generally becoming more willing to open up on mental health, admit to problems and end the stigma, years of under-investment means the job of caring for those who suffer can feel like an impossible task.

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And it doesn't help when the trust you work for has been through a troubled reorganisation, is in special measures and is facing cash cuts, as the NSFT is.

Bosses of the trust used their recent AGM to proclaim of turning a corner, but Mrs Corlett says while some things have improved - there's a long way to go before staff feel that is the case.

She explained: 'A lot of staff still feel angry about how change was managed, though some who are more optimistically minded than others.

'Staff still feel their caseloads are too high, meaning they have to prioritise who to see. Referrals are coming in more quickly than they ever were, which means the service has a substantial waiting list.

'And people working in the crisis teams are still struggling to find people a bed, so that while the out of area figures have fallen, we are seeing a lot of Norfolk patients being put in beds in Suffolk.'

She does admit staff feel they are being listened to more than before, but says there's a feeling trust managers need to get out and spend more time with the staff.

This paper launched its Mental Health Watch campaign last month and even though negative stories can make for hard reading for staff, Unison fully backs the campaign.

Ms Corlett added: 'When we went into special measures, they did at least say staff showed lots of care and compassion towards the patients.

'It is great the campaign can bring lots of organisations and people together and allow the public to be made aware of the reality of what's happening within the NHS and mental health service.

'We need to find equality right at the top where we have a gap between what they say they want to do and what they actually do.'

The government argue they're trying to change this and announced an extra £600m toward mental health in last week's spending review, on which Ms Corlett says: 'It's fair to say that UNISON members were pretty underwhelmed. Research conducted by MIND earlier this year found that mental health had been cut by £600m since 2010. So far from investment, this just puts in what's already been taken out.'

If you have a story for our new campaign email David Powles at david.powles@archant.co.uk

NSFT chief executive Michael Scott responds

'We fully recognise the pressures facing our staff and are already been working to address these.

'We are doing what we can, whenever we can, such as investing £950k into increasing staffing levels into our community services and £2.6m into inpatient staffing to help alleviate pressures.

'We all understand it will take time, and we are in an ever-difficult environment of funding pressures. The fact our staff continue to work as hard as they do to is a testament to their dedication to make this trust stronger.'

On Norfolk patients in Suffolk: 'If there is a peak in demand for Norfolk beds we look for another bed within our trust. This can mean they would be placed in a Suffolk bed, but only for a short period of time.'

On caseloads and waiting lists: 'Like any other health service, there is a waiting list for those services provided by mental health trusts. It is regrettable that patients have to wait, but we have implemented a number of measures to ensure they have regular contact with our services and have reduced waiting lists for Norfolk community services down from 500 in the summer to 117 as of today.'

On senior manager engagement: 'This year, we established the Senior Management Forum, where directors meet with around 100 managers from right across the trust. In turn, they are expected to take back what they learn or hear and share within their own teams. We have also set up a regular programme of directors' visits for both Executive and Non-Executive Directors.'

Case study: Life on the frontline

Liz Spivey, 63, was a social worker for 37 years before leaving the Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust three years ago. She has first-hand experience of some of the pressures staff on the frontline face and worked within the Drugs and Alcohol Treatment Team at Hellesdon Hospital, in Norwich, for four years up until 2012.

Mrs Spivey, from Thorpe St Andrew, said: 'Having qualified in 1977 I saw the way things changed. The main issue was simply having to battle through so much bureaucracy, in terms of get people's treatment funded and all of the form filling you had to do, which I just couldn't cope with.

'It's such a hard job to do, because if things go wrong, as they often do, the consequences can be so serious. I also feel there's too much of a blame culture when things go wrong and the support isn't always there.

'You are always dealing with people in distress and that can of course become very emotionally wearing. To do the job you need to clearly have an interest in people and want to help people but you have to be able to keep your distance and be emotionally stable enough to deal with it.

'If I could make changes to make it easier I'd like them to streamline the paperwork, employ a few more admin people to take the pressure off, make people feel they have more support and try to get away from the blame culture.

'I would never regret doing what I did and some of my dearest friends are still social workers but it can sadly be such a thankless task.'

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