Improving mental health: recognising the vital role of charities

A longstanding criticism of health care in the United Kingdom is that people with mental health problems often fail to receive the same access to services or quality of care as people with other forms of illness.

In their election campaign, the Conservatives pledged to increase mental health funding and ensure psychological therapists are available in every part of the country. But there is a long way to go before mental health achieves ‘parity of esteem’ with physical health. For example, three in four people with a mental health problem in England receive little or no treatment for their condition, and there are large gaps in terms of health outcomes – people with the most severe mental illnesses die on average 15 to 20 years earlier than the general population.

The voluntary and community sector is key to helping address these challenges. Work undertaken by charities complements statutory services, often offering something that the NHS does not, and is an important but often under acknowledged part of mental health care. So I am delighted that half of the winners of this year’s GSK IMPACT Awards, which recognise and reward charities’ outstanding contributions to improving the UK’s health and wellbeing, are organisations working in mental health care.

The 2015 overall winner, RESTORE, is a small charity based in Oxford that helps people with poor mental health regain or retain employment. Poor mental health can be a factor in people losing their job, and joblessness is closely associated with the onset or recurrence of mental health issues. By providing one-to-one coaching and access to recovery groups to help users develop personal goals and plans, RESTORE helped more than 760 people last year, 80 per cent of whom had severe and enduring mental health issues. In the words of one service user: ‘You gain self-confidence, they get you ready for work, then help you once you’re in work – it’s a win-win situation’.

The charity also provides advice on disability rights in the workplace, works to combat the stigma associated with mental health issues and is a driving force in improving mental health care services throughout Oxfordshire. As Andrew Smith MP for Oxford East said, ‘there are really important lessons to be learnt here and excellence which could and should be replicated elsewhere’.

Other 2015 winners include Cool Tan Arts, a Southwark-based charity run by and for people with mental distress. Creativity, self-advocacy and volunteering are core to its work, with volunteers donating 1,720 hours of time last year. Cool Tan Arts aims to reduce individuals’ reliance on statutory services and focuses on supporting people to stay well.

The mental health of young people is an important issue. Half of people with long-term mental health conditions first experienced symptoms before the age of 15, and early identification and intervention can make a massive difference. Bristol-based Off the Record works with 11 to 25 year olds, providing support for those experiencing anxiety, bereavement, bullying, depression, eating disorders, self-harm and relationship issues. The charity works as part of a consortium that includes 10 other voluntary organisations and an NHS trust to develop community mental health care provision for young people in Bristol. Last year, 82 per cent of young people using the charity’s counselling services reported an improvement in their mental health.

Our new government will need to work hard to make a reality of the commitment to put mental health on an equal footing with physical health. Meanwhile, small local organisations, which focus on the prevention of mental ill-health and keeping people well, will continue to support thousands of people each year. It will be a lost opportunity if mental health charities are not seen as equal partners in service design, and if the full value that they can bring to communities is under-estimated.

The 2016 GSK IMPACT Awards will be launched on 1 July.

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#543795 Heather Henry
Co vice chair
NHS Alliance

I agree with this. But I have to add that our focus is too much on recovery from mental illness and not enough on addressing the causes. Much is around an increasing social gradient and economic inequalities which are related to governmental policy. But at local level we can look at rebuilding community as social isolation is a huge issue. The most important factor in wellbeing is social interaction

#543796 Jeannette Harding
Independent Service User Trainer/Consultant

Until recently I worked as a Mental Health trainer and User Consultant ( I have a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder) Recovery Values and the belief that people can have an ongoing mental illness but still have a good quality of life were at the heart of my work. However, I noticed that the recovery agenda - which belongs to service users was being used as a 'cover' for cutting vital mental health crisis help and acute beds. We can't recover if we end up at worst taking our own life because help is not there when we most need it.I

#543800 Michael Osborne
Director Unpaid
Integritas Advocacy Registered Charity

I agree that the causes of mental health illness really needs to be looked at, Heather is quite right. Loneliness, lack of community, unemployment, bullying, psychological abuse, all need further work. Prevention can save so much distress and lives.

#543804 Terry
Member of the public

The importance of charities generally is without question. However problems arise when some charities become 'big business' themselves and suffer all the usual problems and often poor outcomes associated with it. - more money being spent on premises, employing more staff and managers, lengthy and costly restructuring, delays in policy decisions etc etc. Therefore to think that their involvement will bring improvements where it matters is not automatically the case.

#543805 philip jones
retired teacher

agree with heather henry.

#544285 Mary Tilki

I agree with Terry. Not only have the big charities become big businesses, they have become somewhat predatory, seeking to provide services for which they have little or no expertise such as people from BME groups. Small charities (if they are eligible to apply in the first place) have to compete with professional fundraisers, bid writers, while still providing help to very vulnerable people. Contract culture is a very uneven playing field where small charities relying on volunteers offer an accessible acceptable service on a shoestring. They have done what mainstream services failed to do but are disproportionately penalized in the current cut-throat climate

#545040 Sally Flatteau ...
Founder/Chief Executive
The Maypole Project

Thank you for highlighting the importance of the voluntary sector Lisa - The Maypole Project supports children who have complex medical needs and their families through both psychological (counselling/groups) and social (activities/inclusive sports etc) services. Our overall aim is, as Heather notes, to alleviate the stress/anxiety, prevent feelings of isolation families face - we aim to be an early support service in both mental and physical ill health - as both are inextricably linked. But our support can also be about support through recovery from mental illness which can pre-date the child's diagnosis or be triggered by it. At the moment we are resisting becoming akin to a statutory service (without the funding) rather than complementary one - to the NHS etc. We believe that this is happening because statutory and voluntary services are being cut but also larger charities (for whatever reason) are actively signposting people to our services. Possibly for the reasons Mary notes above - contracts are being gained without ability to deliver.

#547992 liz potter

I wholeheartedly agree that without voluntary and charity work we would have a much bigger mental health problem on this country with far recahing consequences.
When I first qualified as a counsellor i worked 1 day a week for a voluntary organisation in York, alongside my private practice. There were usually 4 or 5 counsellors working and we always had a waiting list. I know of 3 other counselling agencies in York staffed by volunteer counsellors.
Im sure it is the same in other cities across the country. These agencies do a vital job and I know from client feedback that clients benefit greatly from the therapy they receive there and that people recover and get their lives back.

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