Is Nick Clegg’s action plan a solution to the challenges facing mental health services in Norfolk and Suffolk?

Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg

Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg - Credit: Archant

Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg branded some mental health care as 'frankly unacceptable' as he launched a new action plan. Political editor annabelle dickson asks if he has the answers to the problems facing Norfolk and Suffolk.

The audience which deputy prime minister Nick Clegg launched his new mental health action plan to yesterday was not an easy one.

It included mental health experts, clinicians, campaigners and the odd journalist who gathered in a central London conference venue to hear about his blueprint for 25 areas where he wants to improve care in mental health. It was clear that Norfolk and Suffolk campaigners are not alone in voicing concerns about their service. There were a number of delegates pointing out the national shortcomings.

The Liberal Democrat leader admits that the way the NHS deals with mental illness currently is far from perfect, branding the way some people are treated as 'frankly unacceptable'.

'Waiting times for common mental health services are still too long, especially in certain areas of the country. There have been stories of people of all ages being transferred, sometimes hundreds of miles, to access a bed. And some children with severe mental health problems are still being cared for in adult wards,' he said.

All too often, attitudes to mental health were 'outdated, stuck in the dark ages, full of stigma and stereotypes,' he added.

Much of this is familiar in Norfolk and Suffolk. With NHS trust plans to cut £40m from its budget and reduce the number of inpatient beds by 20pc by 2016, despite concerns that services are struggling to cope with demand, there are fears from campaigners locally that things are not going to get better.

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So what is Mr Clegg's proposal? His action plan sets out a series of objectives.

These include increasing access to mental health, promoting the integration of physical and mental health care and improving the quality of life for people with mental health problems. It aims to give mental health patients better choice over where they go for care. And Mr Clegg said there would be 'clear' waiting time limits for patients in need of treatment, similar to waiting time limits for those with physical problems.

The document, compiled by the Department of Health, also pledged to improve support for new mothers to minimise the risk of post-natal depression and called for improvements on the transition that young people face when leaving children's facilities and entering adult ones.

For Norfolk campaigners, and also those at the launch in London, it was lacking cold hard cash. Norman Lamb, who is the minister responsible for mental health services, a Norfolk MP and an architect of the plan, said it was primarily about making essential changes to improve mental health services, and ensuring that they got the fair share of resources.

He said: 'I sort of agree it is about resources, but it is also about using resources effectively. They are not being used effectively.'

He added that Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) did have to ensure that mental health services were not suffering against other parts of the system, and were given their 'fair share'.

But the GPs in charge of NHS purse strings have ruled out any significant increase in funding for mental health services, despite calls for more investment in Norfolk and Suffolk.

The five CCGs that cover Norfolk and Waveney, which became responsible for local health budgets on April 1 last year, pledged to continue to work more closely with Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust bosses to remodel and improve services, without spending more money.

So campaigners in Norfolk are sceptical about what Mr Clegg will achieve. Terry Skyrme, who works for the mental health crisis solution team in Norfolk, is one of the leading campaigners against the cuts and said it was like they were going around and around in circles.

'Nobody is grasping the nettle. The Trust have managed the change really badly, but at the end of the day they are being forced to make cuts. It is a national problem and it's a national crisis.'

He said: 'I don't think the CCG have got any money. How much discretion have they got if they have Accident and Emergency to fund and other areas of the health service looking for funds.

'Mental health has traditionally been underfunded, so it should have been exempt from cuts.'

He added: 'If this was happening in physical health, if people were being sent to Harrogate for operations, there would be uproar. That is what is happening in mental health.'

Another campaigner, Mark Harrion from the charity Equal Lives, said that while he welcomed the 'fine words' and Mr Clegg's assertion that mental health services had to be treated equally with other parts of the NHS and funded equally, the deputy prime minister needed to 'put his money where his mouth is'.

He said that 20pc cuts which were being imposed on Norfolk and Suffolk mental health services should be stopped and there should be investment to bring mental health services up to the level of other NHS services.

Certainly their sentiments were echoed in the room with a representative from the Royal College of Pyschistrists questioning if Mr Clegg could make a real difference in the coming year, with many contracts and budgets fixed.

The jury is still out on Mr Clegg's action plan

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