For some years mental health has been one of the permanent issues which has been rumbling in the background without ever quite grabbing the headlines This is particularly true of mental health problems among children and adolescents, where for too long in my area of the country, East Kent, families have had to wait far too long for an initial diagnosis, let alone effective treatment.
Addressing problems early is universally recognised as an essential first step in the process. This is particularly true for children with learning difficulties. They are nearly five times as likely to develop a mental health problem, and more than a third of them end up needing mental health treatment. Overall across the country the number of children referred by their teachers has increased by a third in the past three years.
Last October a new regime took over the running of the Kent and Medway NHS and Social Care Partnership Trust, which is the unwieldy title for the body responsible for mental health services in our part of the world. It would be wildly premature to say that all the many problems have been solved, as staff shortages mean that waiting times are too long, but there is now a clear plan, and the extra money announced for mental health by the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt gives the Trust a chance to make a success of this plan.
It is also important to remember how far we have come in our attitudes to mental health. Sufferers from the various conditions used literally to be kept out of sight and out of mind. 1933 saw the opening of the Kent County Lunatic Asylum in Barming Heath. If that seems an embarrassment from another age, it is sobering to realise that the closure of large asylums only began in 1983, when a more enlightened attitude began to take over.
The current Chief Executive of the KMPT, Helen Greatorex, has written about her first experiences as a mental health nurse in the 1980s, at one of the asylums, Friern Hospital. “There were still hundreds of patients at Friern, cared for in locked wards the size of small aircraft hangers, with little or no privacy.”
As we reflect on 70 years of the NHS, one of the changes we can celebrate is the arrival of personal care for mental health patients, normally delivered while they remain in their own home. There is still a great deal to do to ensure a first-class service in East Kent, but we are making good progress. I suspect a similar picture is true in most parts of the country. That is why continuing to keep the pressure up for better mental health services is absolutely essential.