Enter your email address to stay in touch

Mental health care plea

Unite: more nurses and ‘systemic change’ call
Ryan Fletcher, Friday, September 15th, 2017

This year Prime Minister’s questions fell on the day the NHS turned 69. It was July 5 and Theresa May told MPs that the country has “more nurses in our hospitals than we had in 2010”.


At the same time, but in a seemingly different universe, Unite officer Dave Munday was at a Mental Health Nurses Association (MNHA) meeting in Salford to discuss the “drastic decline” in their numbers.


The Prime Minister’s weasel words were technically correct: the NHS does have more nurses. However, her proclamation obscured the fact that there are also 40,000 unfilled nursing roles and the increase has not compensated for the inexorable rise in demand.


Theresa May’s bombast was an attempt to obscure the truth about the Tories’ systematic dismantling of the health service. The reality is the embattled NHS is in the midst of the worst staffing crisis in its history.


Nowhere is this more apparent than the fall in mental health nurses – not only are there not enough to meet demand, their numbers have actually fallen by 5,000 since 2010. It is a dark irony that many mental health workers are now suffering mental ill health themselves as a result.



Unite is warning that health secretary Jeremy Hunt cannot be trusted to reverse the crisis in mental health care and its knock on effects. Hunt claims the government is going to hire 21,000 mental health staff in order to treat an extra 1m people by 2021 – plans the Royal College of Nursing says “do not add up”.


Unite professional mental health lead Munday is also dubious.


He said, “I don’t believe Hunt is going to do what he says. His record on the NHS speaks for itself. This government dresses announcements up to sound like improvements are going to be made, yet the NHS crisis continues and the promises are never delivered.


“I hope for the country’s sake that Hunt turns things around because this is a critical issue – especially for mental health care. Mental health nurses are being driven into the ground and the people who rely on their services are suffering because of that.”



Over the summer the crisis in mental health services came under increasing scrutiny. In August, the revelation that a bed in an appropriate facility could not be found for a 17-year-old girl who was in danger of taking her own life shocked the country.


The case prompted the nation’s most senior family judge to decry the UK’s “disgraceful and utterly shaming lack of proper provision”. This week, research from the Royal College of Psychiatrists found that “large inequalities” in access to psychiatric care has resulted in a postcode lottery for patients.


Munday says increasing mental health nurse numbers is vital to improving services. To do this the government needs to invest in mental health instead of continuing to cut services, incentivise demoralised staff and encourage people to enter the profession.


“We need ring-fenced mental health funding, an end to the pay freeze and the reintroduction of nursing bursaries,” Munday explained.


The NHS crisis is also increasingly taking its toll on staff and their union reps, a hidden mental health issue which worries Munday.


Health service staff are under growing and unsustainable pressure, which leads some to develop mental ill-health due to stress and rock-bottom morale. This can rub-off on union reps, many of whom have close relationships with their members, explained Munday – who said he speaks from experience.


He said, “I know myself it can be really hard. Many reps are close to members who are experiencing hard times and it’s difficult for them to switch off afterwards. They’re not trained mental health professionals.”


Systemic changes needed

To help deal with the issue Unite has initiated mental health training for reps throughout the country, however Munday is eager to see more systemic changes.


These include having the government introduce a minister for mental health, in order to achieve parity with physical health and investigate how government policies impact people’s psychological wellbeing.


Munday said, “We need a mental health minister who is independent of other departments to look at how policies affect services and people’s mental health.


“Such a move would show the government means what it says about prioritising mental health and help ensure that the huge impact mental health has both at work, and in society in general, is recognised and dealt with.”




Related Articles