The anticipated 2018 Autumn Budget – which also marks the Government’s last significant financial statement before the country withdraws from the European Union (EU) in March of next year – has revealed the future direction of the NHS and in particular, the UK’s mental health services.
While the Chancellor’s speech offered a glimmer of hope for the future of mental health, it fell short of promising the amount of funding needed to deliver vital improvements of services and finally put mental health on equal footing with physical health.
In fact, the Budget failed to disclose any new details about the proposed reforms, and instead reiterated what had already been publicised over the days leading up to the Chancellor’s speech.
What did we learn from the Budget?
Positively, the Government is clearly approaching mental health as a priority, with the Chancellor pledging to increase funding for mental health in England by £2 billion in real-terms. Long neglected and under-funded, this boost comes as a welcome step in the right direction towards addressing the pressing mental health crisis.
It’s also promising to see the announcement of a new mental health crisis service, with comprehensive mental health support available in every major A&E, as well as more mental health ambulances, more safe havens in the community and the introduction of a new 24-hour mental health crisis.
Overall, however, the budget failed to deliver any new policies aimed at bolstering mental health services. Instead, it largely reconfirmed much of what we already knew.
What does this mean for mental health?
Despite efforts to address the pressing – and growing – mental health problem, a cash injection fails to offer a meaningful solution. In fact, after years of lagging and under-funding, this boost reflects a game of catch-up rather than a genuinely progressive movement.
Most significantly, the funding boost disproportionately benefits physical health over mental health, undermining the Government’s promises to place mental health and physical health on equal footing. The overall funding committed to NHS over the next five years is £20.5 billion – a fraction of which is reserved for mental health.
In fact, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) thinktank suggests that the £2 billion extra promised in the budget is only half of the sum that’s actually needed to put spending more on par with that of physical health.
Just recently, depression has overtaken obesity on the GP list of common illnesses – taking second place only to high blood pressure. With the rising burden of mental health and the growing pressure on NHS services, it’s clear that much more needs to be done if we are to the tackle the mental health crisis.
Moreover, while the increase in funding for NHS England will begin rolling out in 2019-20, it will only reach the full amount promised by 2023-24. That’s over four years away – whereas we urgently need solutions now.
What else can be done?
With the NHS already struggling under immense pressure, the Government should be looking to digital solutions that can offer relief. It’s important that businesses and entrepreneurs within the HealthTech space are supported, particularly as young businesses can offer innovative solutions like on-demand and remote access to counselling.
Extending support beyond traditional avenues can prove invaluable for those who struggle to obtain the professional support that they desperately need – in turn, reducing some of the strain being placed on NHS resources. This is particularly vital for working professionals who are not able to attend therapy sessions during work hours.
While it’s good to see the Government take the mental health crisis seriously by making it a focus of this year’s budget – particularly with the lingering uncertainty over Brexit – the overall impression is that much more needs to be done to boost the country’s mental health services.
Meanwhile, HealthTech solutions should not be overlooked as an alternative solution to the growing problem of mental ill-health. The Government should look to deliver extra support for businesses that can offer effective counselling and therapy services through existing technology, such as live video counselling.
Dr Zain Sikafi – CEO and co-founder of Mynurva – a platform that provides live video therapy and counselling sessions. He is also a practicing GP.