At Year’s End, a Snapshot of the UK’s Mental Health Debacle

The Dudson Centre, erstwhile base of operations for NS Voice


Earlier this month, North Staffs Voice for Mental Health, a charitable association in existence since the distant era of John Major’s government, was forced to shut down. Funding for its activities, the bulk of which was derived from local Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), had been withdrawn over the course of the summer, and a subsequent scramble for alternative sources of income proved unavailing. Eight jobs have been “lost” – to use the limp euphemism customarily attached to such calamities, though the active verb “destroyed” more candidly portrays the situation – and offices have closed in Hanley’s Dudson Centre and at the area’s chief psychiatric facility, Harplands Hospital.  Longstanding campaigns of educational outreach have come to a premature halt, training programmes and vital advice sessions terminated, and psychiatric patients left without the skilled advocacy in which the organization excelled. Volunteers have been deprived of an outlet for their altruistic impulses, exposing Cameronian preachments about the “Big Society” as the windiest of rhetoric, while a quarterly newsletter sent to more than a thousand NS Voice members ceased publication following a final issue in October.

Carole Stone, ex-CEO of NS Voice, has stated that its disappearance could hardly have occurred at a more inexpedient juncture, coming as it does in the midst of deep cuts imposed on services across the board. Given the damaging repercussions closure will entail, the innocent bystander would be forgiven for thinking that a great deal of money must have hinged upon the decision. That, however, is not the case: running costs amounted to a decidedly modest £170,000, or less than the price of the average UK home now that neoliberal chicanery is left with nothing but the tumefaction of housing bubbles as a means to expand the economy. Evidently that sum is significant in the minds of the bean counters appointed to preside over such matters, a delegation of whom met with representatives of NS Voice in July to pay lip service to the latter’s entreaties for a stay of execution. It must be assumed that the smartly efficient actuaries were unmoved by the stories they heard concerning the crucial role the charity has played in the lives of Stoke-on-Trent residents; more surprisingly, taking into consideration the ardour generally aroused in their profession by “rebranding” and related image-based shenanigans, they remained unimpressed too that the appellation NS Voice is a recent substitute for the organization’s former name of NSUG, or North Staffs Users Group.

All of this, upsetting as it is, represents a mere microcosm of the nationwide imperilment and eradication of mental health services. In the general election unexpectedly held in June, the Conservatives, under the pious leadership of vicar’s daughter Theresa May, stumbled to a Pyrrhic victory over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party – thereby bolstering the view previously expressed in this blog that Corbyn, his considerable virtues notwithstanding, would founder on the electoral rock of Brexit equivocation – and since then have continued to grind the vulnerable beneath the hobnailed boot of austerity. In the domain of socialized health care, the method employed has been the classic Chomskyan formula of instigating chaos and dissatisfaction via defunding, with privatization set to ride to the rescue as purportedly superior replacement. The cruel catch with regard to psychiatric services is that few corporations are clamouring to take them on, meaning that in a privatized scheme the poor are unlikely to benefit from anything more than nominal treatment. Any lingering trace of shame has vanished from Conservative propaganda, and consequently May and her ghoulish Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt loudly proclaim the exact opposite, namely that under Tory governance psychological and physical complaints bask in an unprecedented “parity of esteem” whereby each is in receipt of generous amounts of cash.

The facts are altogether at odds with such absurd sophistry. Paul Mason, BBC journalist turned Corbynite, has quipped that the Tories’ mantra of “strong and stable” would switch to “weird and nasty” in a world where thumbnail delineations were reflective of the truth. The nastiness is conspicuous in policies that function inescapably to ramp up the incidence of mental illness, pursued conjointly with measures designed to eviscerate state aid for those affected. Stagnant wages, precarious employment, epidemic homelessness and the “sanctioning” – that is to say, theft – of social security payments comprise the fertile soil in which psychological malady is sure to germinate. Meanwhile, there has been a 12% reduction since 2010 in the number of psychiatric nursing staff, and freedom of information requests have divulged the disturbing reality that a majority of CCGs are engaged in curtailing mental health expenditure. In November 2017, twelve prominent mental health charities wrote jointly to the government to warn that patients are “locked out” of a beleaguered and under-resourced system. Their pleas for increased revenue, issuing as they did from that currently despised segment of the populace, accredited experts, drew the risible response that an extra £1 billion would be invested in the problem by 2021, a total roughly equivalent to one fiftieth of the annual defence budget.

Aneurin Bevan, after creating the institution in 1948, predicted that the National Health Service would endure as long as people were willing to fight for it. The British ruling class, the globe’s most tenacious fraternity of capitalists, recognizes the accuracy of his observation; while striving to foster as much reactionary sentiment as it can through attacks on designated enemies – a tactic which of late has not stopped short of defaming the hitherto sacrosanct vocations of doctor and nurse – in large part it relies on apathy and political fatalism to ease its goal of dismantling the NHS and other surviving vestiges of the Bevanite welfare state. It’s to the enormous credit of those experiencing mental illness that, while coping with the formidable challenges posed by everyday life, a substantial body of them have battled against the lure of passivity through involvement in such campaigning groups as 38 Degrees and Disabled People Against Cuts. Tragically, unless activism of that kind develops critical mass, their future appears bleak.

By way of conclusion, the present author, Mark Conlon, is obliged once again to apologize for the dearth of articles published here over the past year, even if technically the meagre complement of four fulfils the promise I made twelve months ago to accelerate output from the level reached in 2016. At a time when the UK is transitioning from social democracy to Dickensian workhouse, Europe is beset by ethnonationalist barbarism, and a bellicose ignoramus in the White House jeopardises the very existence of the human species, the reader perhaps will sympathize with my reluctance to compose an incessant chronicle of gloom. Our group wishes visitors to this site the best for 2018, when one hopes passionately to see the sort of progressive change that would compel the most sternly Salingeresque of writers, this one included, to return reinvigorated to their keyboards.


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