Mental health ‘parity of esteem’ far away as ever, say specialists

A survey by the Royal College of Nursing shows 57 per cent of mental health nurses think “parity of esteem” has still not achieved.

Equal treatment for patients with mental health problems remains as far away as ever according to specialist nurses – six years after the Coalition government promised to achieve it. A survey by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) shows the majority (57 per cent) of mental health nurses across the UK think “parity of esteem” has still not achieved.

The phrase was used by David Cameron in 2013 when the then Prime Minister pledged to reduce the funding gap between mental and physical health. Theresa May also promised equal treatment when she took office so the survey’s findings will prove embarrassing for the government. Those with serious mental illnesses such as psychosis or bipolar disorder, for example, die between 15 and 20 years earlier than the UK average; people with schizophrenia are up to three times more likely than average to have diabetes; and young adults with severe mental illness are three times more likely than average to die from heart disease.

The RCN’s survey found that over half (57 per cent) of nurses who responded considered that their respective UK nation had been either ‘unsuccessful’ or ‘very unsuccessful’ in delivering mental health equality. Only 17 per cent said their country had been successful. Almost four in 10 (38 per cent) also considered that their mental health setting was ‘completely ill-equipped’ or ‘not well-equipped’ to respond to the physical health needs of people with serious mental illness (for example, lacked the right equipment to carry out diagnostic tests for physical health problems).

The findings come on the day the RCN hosts the launch of the Equally Well UK “Charter for Equal Health”, a new collaborative backed by over 50 health and care organisations. The Charter invites those who support it to make pledges for the action they will take to increase life expectancy for people with severe mental illness.

The nurses said the most important factor that would make the biggest difference would be to increase funding for mental health care, followed by safe staffing of services – the number of mental health nurses has dropped by 5,000 since 2010 – and better commissioning of services. For example, setting up specialist clinics to help people with mental illness lose weight or stop smoking.

Tim Coupland, RCN Programme Lead for Parity of Esteem, said: “It’s not only a tragedy that people with mental illness die so much earlier than the general population, it’s also scandalous in a modern health service that we still have so far to go.

“As a mental health nurse, I welcomed each UK government’s commitment to equal treatment for people with mental health problems – but we need a much more co-ordinated approach across the NHS to make faster progress towards this laudable aim. At the RCN, we wanted to find out exactly what nurses working in mental health thought would make a difference.

“The findings from our survey – more funding for mental health services, more staff and better planning of services – won’t come as a surprise to Health Ministers and NHS managers, but nurse working in mental health are better placed than anyone to give definitive answers on what is holding up progress. ”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We’re committed to seeing parity between physical and mental health, which is why we’re transforming services supported by record amounts of funding, and major increases to the workforce, with our ambition to create 21,000 new posts by 2021. Mental health will be a key priority of our long-term plan for the NHS which will be published in the autumn, backed by £20.5bn of funding over the next five years.”