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NHS workforce planning is essential to transforming mental health services, says Leila Reyburn, policy and campaigns manager at mental health charity Mind
Earlier this year the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced plans for 21,000 more NHS mental health workers over the next five years. The plan, put together by Health Education England, outlines how it hopes to benefit an extra one million people who need support from mental health services by 2020-21, through the recruitment of additional nurses, therapists and consultants.
Mind welcomes this plan, which we believe to be key to the successful delivery of the Five Year Forward View for Mental Health – the NHS’s plan for improving mental health services between now and 2020-21. Mental health services depend heavily on the capacity and quality of the workforce and we know that the support of a great nurse, doctor, psychologist or social worker can make all the difference to people’s lives.
While welcome, this plan comes within a wider context of mental health services that have been under-funded for decades and the NHS faces a significant challenge in overcoming years of decline to bring them up to the same basic standard as physical health services. Failures in workforce planning in the past have contributed to where we are now, with a huge gap between what’s in place and what’s needed to deliver good quality care. Funding cuts to mental health services in recent years have directly led to posts being lost and those staff that remain have had their morale weakened and have been left feeling demotivated, frustrated and facing burn-out.
Time to Change
The scale of the challenge is clear and it’s not just about recruiting extra staff. The NHS needs also to attract and retain good staff who are passionate and committed, so it’s good to see this acknowledged in the workforce plan. It’s also positive to see a recognition of the importance of ensuring mental health staffing is multidisciplinary, including areas such as peer support.
Staff working within NHS mental health services do a hugely important job and can make a real difference to the lives of people accessing mental health services, many of whom can be vulnerable, particularly those who are in hospital after being in crisis. The mental well-being of the workforce is crucial and only when NHS staff are well-supported can they do their best by those in their care, which includes having a workforce big enough to cope with the workload. Like any other employer, the NHS needs to make the mental health of its staff a priority. If not, it will affect not just employees but service users too.
This plan takes us to 2020/2021. We need already to start thinking about what happens beyond that. As the stigma around mental health starts to fall away, and awareness increases – thanks in large part to movements such as Time to Change, the campaign we run in partnership with Rethink Mental Illness – we will no doubt see more and more people identify, acknowledge and seek help for their own mental health. This is hugely positive as it means fewer people will struggle in silence, but it also means that we expect demand for mental health services to continue to rise.
We need a longer-term, comprehensive workforce strategy to carry us beyond that, that will take into account increased demand and look to better integrate mental and physical health services. Such a strategy needs to include staff working in independent and voluntary sector services, and social care, as well as a commitment to improving understanding of mental health for all frontline NHS staff working in non-mental health services.