NHS bosses: Benefit stress driving mental health care demand

Mental health unit sign

 Nine out of 10 NHS mental health trusts bosses in England believe benefit changes have increased the number of people needing help. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

NHS bosses have warned that people left stressed and unable to cope as a result of changes to their benefits are adding to the rising demand for mental health care.

The benefits system shake-up and introduction of universal credit have damaged people’s mental health so that they have sought NHS help, a new report reveals.

Nine out of 10 (92%) NHS mental health trusts bosses in England believe benefit changes have increased the number of people with anxiety, depression and other conditions.

In a survey by NHS Providers, 63% of the 36 trust bosses who responded said changes to claimants’ payments or the rollout of universal credit had had a “high impact” and was the single biggest driver of demand.

Lack of money, housing, and cuts to local services are also contributing because they directly affect people’s wellbeing, which then leaves them needing help, NHS Providers found.

The report says: “Trust leaders are very concerned about the impact of growing social and economic hardship in their local communities. In particular, they pointed to benefits and the effects of financial hardship, homelessness, and substance and alcohol misuse playing a growing role in the nature and volume of presentations to mental health services.”

Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, said the pressures caused by benefit changes and universal credit, along with cuts to preventative and support services “are pushing more and more people into crisis, and we see the consequences through increased demand for mental health services”.

The findings come at the end of a week in which austerity policies implemented since 2010 have been blamed for contributing to increased knife crime, struggling schools and growing public dissatisfaction with the NHS.

“Like so many problems afflicting this country under the Tories, it is now abundantly clear that the effects of austerity are also the root of many mental health problems, putting extreme pressure on NHS services,” said Barbara Keeley, Labour’s shadow cabinet minister for mental health.

Loneliness and social isolation, public awareness campaigns about mental health, and long-term health conditions are contributing to the number of people seeking therapy and other treatment.

“Changes to the benefits system in recent years, and austerity generally, have had a devastating impact on the lives of many people with mental health problems,” said Paul Farmer, chief executive of the charity Mind.

He added: “The punitive, complicated benefits system in particular is making people unwell. People tell us they are treated with suspicion about the nature of their health problem and how it affects them by someone who lacks expertise, knowledge or sensitivity when it comes to mental health. They are then having their support cut when they’re not able to do the things that are asked of them.”

The rollout of universal credit has been dogged by controversy. For example, hundreds of thousands of people have had to wait for at least 35 days before they receive their first benefit payment, leaving them at risk of stress, hunger and rent arrears.

The survey also found that:

  • There is a major shortage of community teams, which help prevent patients having a mental-health crisis, community-based services for both adults and under-18s, and home-treatment crisis teams
  • In some areas mental health services are being cut by the NHS and local councils, despite Theresa May’s pledge of a major budget boost
  • Mental health’s share of the NHS budget will only increase by 0.5% over the next five years
  • Mental health services are increasingly beset by staff shortages – 91% of trusts have too few doctors, nurses and therapists

The mental health leaders, who run 32 of England’s 54 specialist mental health trusts, welcome the government’s plans to transform care, but have serious doubts about them being realised.

They painted a picture of services struggling to cope with the recent spike in demand. Despite repeated government promises of extra money and more staff, people are going untreated because of “significant unmet need” for mental health care, they warned.

A government spokesperson said: “Universal credit tailors support to people’s individual needs and where challenges remain we will continue to make improvements.”

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