World Mental Health Day should highlight the government's ongoing failures

By Bernadette Meaden
October 9, 2013

The Government should not be so quick to issue statements expressing its pride at the 'progress' it has made ahead of World Mental health Day.

David Barr, 28, had serious mental health problems. He had given up work in 2011 and was taking anti-psychotic sedatives, anti-depressants, and sleeping tablets. In May he was called for a Work Capability Assessment. David was told he was fit to work and in July his Employment Support Allowance was stopped. On August 23rd he took a bus to the Forth Road Bridge, and jumped off. He was recovered from the water but later died in hospital.

Department for Work and Pensions officials have told David’s father that had he appealed, his son would have had his benefits reinstated. Mr. Barr commented, “They said David was fit for work but, in fact, he was fit for hospital. I would say they are 90 per cent to blame for him taking his life. He’d just had enough.”

The Damocles sword of Work Capability Assessments, which judges have ruled unfair to people with mental illness, but which carry on relentlessly, is just one factor making life more difficult for people with a mental health problem. The cuts to NHS and Council budgets have left services stretched to breaking point.

This week Sir Peter Fahy, Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, expressed his concern that police officers, who are not trained for such work, are increasingly called upon to deal with mentally ill people who are not receiving the care they need, including those who are suicidal or self-harming. In extreme cases this can lead to tragedy, as in the case of Thomas Orchard, a 32 year old church caretaker who died in police custody when he was restrained after suffering a relapse of his schizophrenia.

Sir Peter said that often the police are called because a person is behaving in a way that may not be criminal but is disturbing to the public. It can be frightening to see someone behaving in an unusual manner, but this fear can only be heightened by irresponsible media coverage. In the week when we mark World Mental Health Day, the Sun newspaper chose to publish a front page which declared, ‘1,200 killed by mental patients’ associating mental illness with violence, and reinforcing harmful stigmas and stereotypes. The truth, as campaigners were quick to point out, is that people with a mental health problem are actually more likely to be a victim of a crime than are the general population.

We live in one of the richest countries in the world. This week David Cameron launched the Help to Buy scheme, which will put billions of pounds of public money into guaranteeing mortgages for people who, by definition, are in secure employment and earning a good income. Meanwhile, mentally ill people cannot get the care they need and suffer unbearable stress through fear of losing their meagre benefits. In perhaps the cruellest and most short-sighted cut of all, children and young people’s mental health services are being cut, inevitably storing up problems for the future. As a country our priorities seem rather skewed, to put it mildly.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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