One Month Before Heartbreak: Who Cares?

Who cares?

Not the government.

The One Month Before Heartbreak campaign was set up to highlight the travesty that will result from the Coalition’s so-called benefit reform.  I will admit to not knowing all the specifics, mainly because it is too depressing and anxiety-inducing to examine such bleak material.  But one thing I do know is that if and, more likely, when thousands of genuine benefits claimaints are robbed of the few pounds that facilitate their (usually quite basic) existence, there will be poverty, there will be homelessness, there will be unbearable misery – and there will be death.

My friend Ali Quant, who writes the brilliant Purple Noise blog, recently published an eloquent yet tragic and utterly heart-breaking post on what the consequences of losing her only source of income are likely to be. Well, not consequences, for there is only one course of action that Ali feels appropriate: suicide.  Her decision is not rash or over-the-top: it simply reflects the fact that she would, understandably, rather not live at all than live the life of homeless degradation and despair that she formerly led.

Forgive a statement that sounds like a teenager whinging, but it’s just so unfair.  Ali has oftentimes lived a horrible life, and exists with the side-effects of that every day.  She is ill as a result of trauma – not some layabout that sat down one day and calculated how much she could scrounge from the UK taxpayer.

Why Bother?

I happen to know that Ali has a very high IQ and even had I not been privy to that information, it is clear from her writing, from the way she carries herself in (online) conversation and even from her apparently innate abilities to outshine anyone at Scrabble that she is a very smart woman.  I also happen to know that she has worked in the past.

This is something I often point out in relation to my own circumstances.  I have an IQ that is frustratingly just short of Mensa-level (and therefore less than Ali’s! ;)); I spent 19 years in full-time education (the Northern Ireland requirement for same being only 12 years); I worked my fucking arse off in various jobs since the age of 16.  Why, why, would I have done any of that if I had wanted to languish on benefits all my life?  Why would I have incurred thousands and thousands of pounds of student debt, only to willingly lie about all day and fail to intellectually stimulate myself as I would, at least to some degree, in a job?  I am not by nature a lazy person.  As I discussed with Paul this week (blog to follow), when other female children were fantasising about weddings and babies, I was fantasising about my dream job.  I still am, but I can’t have it right now.  Because I, like Ali, am ill.  Not malingering, but ill.  Debilitated.  Incapacitated.  Unable.

Consequences

The consequences for me if I lose my benefits are not as horrific as those of Ali, but they will still be profound. Given my level of debt and the fact that I already cannot afford to repay it, I would probably have to declare myself bankrupt.  I will still have a roof over my head, thank God, but A or Mum would become solely financially responsible for me.  Have you any idea how utterly pathetic and downtrodden that would cause a person to feel?  Add to that a hefty dose of pre-existing mental illness and the consequences are horribly far-reaching. A complete psychotic break?  A suicide (attempt)?  A complete fall from ‘normal’ depression, itself swathed in a despair unknown to an average human being, into the black depths of indescribable, paralysing suffering? Self-harm, that becomes increasingly more severe and dangerous?

And that’s just how it may affect me.  What about the others?  My mother is a pensioner now, meaning that her income is shockingly low, and although A earns a reasonable salary, it’s not easily enough to cover both of us.  And anyway, why should he have to be financially responsible for me?  He earns his salary; I don’t do any part of his job for him.  Why should I get any of it?  My point is simply that it also isn’t fair on either of them for me to lose my income.  And I suppose one might say, “but why is it therefore fair on the state to be financially responsible for you?”  The answer is that, partly, that I’ve already paid the state quite a bit. Furthermore, it is a long-held principle of this country that we care for our most vulnerable and ill.  Or, at least, it was.

Flaws

The DLA consultation papers, and related information, can be found here.  I don’t want to read it, but I know from A looking at it that a lot of it is simply bullshit.  One thing I heard him muttering about was that they say there is a “perception” that DLA is simply an out-of-work benefit (which is not true, as anyone who meets the criteria can receive the allowance, including those in full-time employment).  So what?  A “perception” is not a reality.  If this is their problem, why don’t go out and address the fucking “perception”, rather than raping genuinely disabled people of what is rightfully theirs?

Secondly, consider the hideous assessment process.  I know I’ve ranted about this before on similar posts, but aside from the fact that they are shockingly triggering, overwhelming and vile experiences, they are as ill thought out as fuck.  Anyone with a vaguely medical background can assess anyone with any form of ill health or disability.  To note our arena specifically, have you ever heard of a psychiatrist actually running the assessment meeting of a person with some form of mental illness?  No?  Neither have I.  Neither have I heard of orthopaediatricans or rhuematologists assessing someone claiming for arthritis, nor a gastroenterologist evaluating a person with Chron’s disease or a peptic ulcer.

Thirdly, as I argued in this post (with the properly-sourced figures to back it up), the whole Daily Mail-esque trump card (ie. that the majority of sickness/disability claimants are fraudulent) that the government seem to be playing is simply not true.  DLA in particular has the lowest rate of fraud of any state benefit in the UK, probably because of the ridiculous amount of hoops you have to jump through just to even be considered for it.  Benefit crime is certainly a crime, and I welcome prosecution of those people who claim money to which they aren’t entitled, and who give the rest of us a bad name in the process.  But the statistics speak for themselves: benefit fraud is not as widespread as many seem to think it is, and much, much more money is ‘stolen’ from the UK’s economy each year from tax evasion and white collar crime, investigations into which I don’t recall having heard anything about from the Coalition.  I’m not making a lefty (Yanks read: liberal) point here; these are simply the facts.

Prison

Last night A and I were lamenting the sad reality that Ali Quant’s recent blog post highlights.  As the discussion progressed, A had a somewhat irreverent brainwave: why don’t those of us that are probably going to lose our benefits simply commit a crime?  Not a silly crime like shoplifting – you’d get off with a warning for that, especially if you’re a first time ‘offender’.  No, we’re talking murder, GBH, rape – that sort of thing. Something to get you put into the slammer.

Of course, because we are not cunts (well, except me – but I still wouldn’t do any of the above), we are not going to do any of those horrible things.  So, I postulated, we should simply confess to an unsolved serious crime that we didn’t commit.  The cops and the CPS/DPP are unlikely to have the wit to realise that the confession is false, and would be glad to get a few more positive results under their belt.  Win all round.

Why do you want to go to prison, Pan?  Well, obviously, I don’t.  But think about it; prisoners have a guaranteed roof over their heads for the duration of their sentence, they get regularly fed, most have TVs in their ‘cells’, they get leisure time with pool tables and video games, they work to earn ‘luxuries’ such as cigarettes, they can gain qualifications, and now they’re getting the vote.  All this is funded by the taxpayer.

It is a sad state of affairs, in my view, when those detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure are afforded the same basic rights that the government are preparing to strip from the infirm and the disabled.

Responding

Even if I did find it in myself to read the DLA reform consultation document, I can’t respond to it online as it applies to Great Britain only (the Northern Ireland equivalent is here, and in this case I will be responding via email).  However, if you are on the mainland and you feel up to reading the document, please do take the time to make your views known.  Will they listen?  Almost certainly not, but they still need to know that there is a substantial body out there that regards these “reforms” as destructive and life-threatening.  I don’t honestly believe they currently know it fully; after all, we don’t (as yet…see below) have a mobilising force taking this issue to the fore in the way that the protesting students did.  So tell them.  It will be a waste of your time, probably, but tell them anyway.  Put it on record.

Who cares?

As established, not the government.  Probably not the reactionary media and the majority of those that follow it either.

But these people are not all people.

In light of Ali’s tragic post (above), the wonderful Phil Groom had an idea.  An idea borne out of the fact that he cares about people with disabilities and illness, an idea borne out of the fact he is so full of generosity and love.

The 200 People Campaign

Phil proposed* that he ‘recruit’ 200 individuals that would be willing to give, monthly, £5 each, resulting in payment of about £12,000 pa.  Initially the proposition was to give this all to Ali upon the probable loss of her benefits, but proving that there’s more than one good person in the world, a lively discussion broke out during which it was agreed monies raised should actually go to a central fund.  If someone had their benefits cut they could, for example, rely on the fund to get them through the appeals process, though that said, the specific qualifications for it have not yet been worked out.  One thing this will not be is a second income to those that retain their benefits; it will exist only to help those that the DWP/SSA have erroneously decreed to be unworthy of financial help**.

Although this is a big ask of people, it is do-able – it’s quite within reach if we get the word out.  We can do this. We can do for society’s most vulnerable what this supposedly caring government will not do.  And you can too.

Please see Phil’s post on the issue – linked above, and below in the links section too – or, if you are a Facebook user, why not request membership* of the group set up for the campaign?  Why not write your own blog post or Facebook/Twitter message to raise awareness?  Why not publicly pledge your intention to give £5 to help those that will have their lives devastated by these cuts?  Or, if you cannot afford that, why not at least join us in solidarity?

As Karita so perfectly put it, if David Cameron wants a ‘Big Society’, let’s give him one.

Links

Blog Posts on the 200 People and One Month Before Heartbreak Campaigns
Other Blogs and Sites Against Benefit Cuts
In the News
DLA Reform Consultation Documentation
My Previous Posts on Benefit Cuts

Please contact me or leave a comment below with any more links that you think are relevant to this post and I will add them as soon as possible.

* Please note that you may encounter a request for a password to Phil’s post.  There are a number of reasons for this that are discussed in the post itself and in its comments.  Please contact Phil for access.  The Facebook group is presently a ‘closed’ one for the same reasons.

** It is also been agreed that the proposed fund will, for the meantime, be restricted to those with mental health difficulties.  This is because mental illness is so un-obvious and stigmatised, and also because, regrettable as it is, we are simply unlikely to have the resources to help everyone that this government is screwing with.

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The Comprehensive Spending Review Will Screw People With Mental Illness

I’m far too depressed about this to write extensively on it, but by now you’ll probably be aware that our friend Gideon has slashed funds for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).  Fair?  Well, you make up your own mind, but let’s face it; those of us that are genuine claimants are just as screwed as the few ‘scroungers’ that exist within the system.

ESA Work Group

Georgie has decreed that those in the ‘Work Related Group’ of ESA will only be allowed to remain there for a year, then will be transferred to Job Seekers’ Allowance (JSA).  Um…sorry?  I thought the work-group was for people who had ‘limited capacity‘ for employment.  Augh well.  Everyone will be better within a year, won’t they George?  It really is as easy as that.  Thanks for letting me know.

This is truly dreadful in just about every conceivable way.  JSA does not carry with it ‘return to work’ schemes and the support of an ‘advisor’ in as work-group ESA does, thus reducing and definitely not incentivising those that will be affected.  Also, JSA paid at a lower rate than ESA.  You could argue that it’s only a difference of about £20, but when you live on the fucking line, £20 is a lot of money.  Way to boost people’s morale and encourage them back to the workforce, regardless of whether or not they’re still ill.  Nice one, G.

Here’s a stunningly insightful, absolutely non-patronising and comprehensive look at how the work group of ESA works, in case you were not previously familiar with it:

Wondrously Amazing Explanation of ESA!

Wayhay!!! Thanks, Social Security Agency, This is STUNNING!

ESA Support Group

Big G ‘n’ Friends claim that the ‘most severely’ ill/disabled individuals will still be ‘looked after’.  Oh really?

Just how is that measured, G?  I can’t find a source through Google, but estimates being bandied about on Twitter suggest that only six per cent of ESA claimants are allocated to the ‘support’ group of the benefit, the one where people are ‘safe’ from being moved to JSA.

Why don’t we just reduce it to one per cent, George?  Or even point one?  If all that matters is protecting the ‘most severely’ ill/disabled, then why not just set your arbitrary figures at an even more arbitrary level?  Why not screw everyone?  Why not decide that the lowest number possible represents the ‘most severely’ disabled?  In fact, I have a great idea.  How about, instead of using percentages, we just ‘protect’ the one single ‘most severely’ disabled person in the whole country?!  That would really help clear the deficit!

Why Mentalists are Fucked

It’s not just mentalists, of course.  Anyone with a hidden disability is potentially bollocksed by this, regardless of reams of medical evidence agreed by 700,000 health professionals clearly demonstrating their chronic/severe/seriously debilitating illness(es).  This is because of the government’s infinitely wise choice to ignore what is clearly biased evidence from your GP, consultant and any other medic-y types you may see, and have you assessed instead by their independent medical assessors.

These people of course work for the Social Security Agency (SSA) and ATOS because they voluntarily turned down positions in the NHS and private medicine, absolutely not because they were faced with little choice when it came to their careers.  Hmm.  yes.  *clears throat*  Furthermore, naturally their specialist rotations were of such longevity and depth that they know at least as much if not more than individual consultants in specific branches of clinical medicine. Um-hmm-hmm-hmm.  Yup. *clears throat again*

In short (and sarcasm aside) – these twats have little to no specialist knowledge of psychiatry/psychology, and are therefore not in any position at all to make a judgement on whether someone is truly mentally ill or not.  Ditto gynaecology, rheumatology, opthamology, etc etc etc, ad infinitum.

Random Notes and Observations

I am interested to note no evidence in the CSR of extra percentage points added to things like inheritance tax for those left with colossal inheritances.  I wonder why that was?

It should be noted (as if matters weren’t complicated enough) that ESA can be claimed on a contributory or an income-based basis:

  • [you can claim] contributory ESA if you have paid enough national insurance contributions. However, if you become unfit for work before you are 20 (25 in some cases), you do not need to meet the national insurance contribution conditions.
  • income-related ESA [is claimable] if your income and savings are low enough…To get income-related ESA, your income will be compared with an amount the Government thinks is enough for you to live on.  If you income is less than this, you will get the maximum amount of income-related ESA. If your income is more than this amount, you may get some income-related ESA.  You cannot get any income-related ESA if your savings are more than £16,000. If you get child maintenance payments, usually these will not be included in your income.  (Source)

So, to be fair, this reform won’t officially affect everyone who claims ESA in the work-group.  But do we trust the government to keep the income-related component safe from stealth cuts?  I’m not so sure.

Links

Many people have responded and will respond far better to today’s announcements than I have or can.

I will add to this as and when I come across more.  I suspect that that shall not be far in the future.

My views on the already-proposed changes (from the June 2010 budget) to Disability Living Allowance (DLA) can be found here.

Number Crunching

I do not object to benefit reform per se, and I would like to see ‘scroungers’ weeded out of the system as much as anyone else.

The problem is that the idea of ‘scroungers’ is a hand being grossly overplayed by the government and the country’s reactionary media.  No one denies that there’s some such people; however, most of us dispute that they are as high in number as The Fail or The Sexpress have indoctrinated their respective readerships into believing.  In actuality, the rate of benefit fraud comes in at something like one per cent of all claimants, for God’s sake.  Oh, wait.  A source, you say?  OK.  It’s…um…The Daily Mail!

For the purposes of comparison, This is Money notes that the Citizens Advice Bureau estimates that whilst the aforementioned 1% of fraudsters may be incurring about £5 billion pounds of expense, about £16 billion of benefit entitlements are unclaimed.

The same site also points out that The National Fraud Authority (NFA) claims that tax evasion costs the Treasury about £17 billion.  One thing to note here is that one single case of tax evasion or white collar fraud can run into millions, thus possibly meaning that relative to benefit fraud, there are fewer individuals committing this type of financial crime.  Nevertheless, the figure is still three times higher than that of benefit crime, and thus is surely relevant to the bigger picture in governmental macro-budgeting.  Perhaps some funding to help the NFA catch white collar criminals wouldn’t go amiss.  Perhaps, given these figures, much more money could be returned to the Exchequer in this way than by cutting benefits to those that need them?

Meh

What do I know though.  I’m just a dirty benefit fraudster who thoroughly deserves to be cast into a potentially deadly financial desert for her crimes, all because you can’t always see her faux illness crippling her body.

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Thoughts on the DLA Changes in the Budget

EDIT II – 17 February 2011 – Today the government announced its welfare “reform” bill, the relevant document being accessible here. I haven’t examined it yet, mainly as I am very severely depressed at the minute and incapable of doing anything even remotely constructive. I would suggest that you check out the blogs of these folks for useful and insightful commentary on the proposals. There is also a very good piece on disability benefits by left-wing activist Sally Bercow here.

The information I have in this post is still relevant to DLA changes, and I hope you find it useful. However, it is not as current as some other material out there, given that it was written in response to the June 2010 budget. I hope that if this post doesn’t answer your questions, that at least some of the links here can.

Best wishes

Pandora

EDIT – 6 December 2010 – In light of announcements made today on DLA, this post is experiencing a resurgence of hits.  Unfortunately the material herein, although probably relevant to today’s measures, is not about them specifically, referring instead to ideas mooted in the June 2010 budget.  I have yet to examine in detail the changes announced in today’s proposal documents, but will do so as soon as possible and then post about it.  In the meantime, here is the information provided by the government itself, and an article on the issue from Community Care.

NOTE: This is written from the point of view of someone claiming Disability Living Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance as her sole income; I do not and cannot work at present.  In most cases, DLA can be awarded if you do work.  However, I have only claimed it in the context of unemployment, and would apparently not be entitled to it if and when I did return to work, so I am writing from that perspective.  Please see here if you need more details on the benefit.

So apparently the delightful George Osbourne, with the backing of both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats in their spectacularly beautiful little love-in coalition of joy, has decreed that from 2013 all claimants of Disability Living Allowance – new or existing – will have to undergo medical examinations.  This is in order to weed out the dirty, scrounging malingerers that go about claiming DLA…you know, those bunch of work-shy, lazy twatbags that just cannot be arsed to work.

People like me!!!

I am mental, therefore I have a disability that you can’t see on or about my body…therefore I don’t have a disability and am not mental, so seemingly goes the circular logic, because mental illness* doesn’t really exist, does it – it’s just something us pigshit, employment-avoidant obsessives make up so we can live at the tax-payer’s expense.  Nevermind that filling out the bloody form is like a full-time job in itself…

(* Of course they do recognise that mental illness exists – but ‘depression’ or ‘PTSD’ or whatever are not really mental illnesses in these people’s eyes.  One has to be floridly and continually psychotic, otherwise they ain’t unwell at all innit.  And, yes, I know – not everyone in the government or society at large thinks this.  Probably not even the majority, to be fair.  But it’s still going to be the hidden disabilities that get hit here – of that I am almost certain).

Obviously, I’m being facetious here.  I know that there are people claiming benefits who are work-shy malingerers, and of course I’d like to see such people weeded out of the system; I think most right-thinking people would.  The difficulties with this approach are many, though.

For one, I genuinely don’t believe that there’s as many such people in the system as the Daily Fail-thumping reactionists would have us believe.  That was a view that I formerly held, I must confess, and I apologise profusely for my unfair, cruel stereotyping.  It hasn’t been my own work-demise that has fuelled my revision of opinion, but connecting with so many people on Twitter and Facebook whose claims for various disabilities – mental or physical, obvious or hidden – are very clearly needed and deserved.  I have yet to meet one single person claiming the benefit that does not seem entitled to it.

Secondly, these medical examinations can set people like me back by months.  I cannot emphasise enough how stressful they are.  Unlike DLA, claims for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), the replacement for Incapacity Benefit (IB), are presently assessed.  I went through one in March last year, and it effectively ruined my life for a while – the derision and contempt with which you are treated, the evident disbelief on the part of the clinician, the gruelling and intimate interrogation that they force upon you – for someone mentally stable, it would be horrific.  The effects upon us that are clearly unstable are potentially devastating.

Thirdly, as Benefit Scrounging Scum points out in this post, there is a danger that DLA assessments will completely backfire on the government.  If, as seems likely, assessments will ensure that many people receiving or applying for DLA will be turned down for it, then in all probability the various Social Security Agencies will be swamped with costly appeal tribunals.  The capital involved in provision of these tribunals could quite possibly amount to a figure similar to the bill currently directed at DLA payments.  Any savings would ergo be lost.

On a similar point, though, I fear that those of us with mental health problems, or those that are ‘easily’ distressed, may be so floored by the news that their DLA claim has been rejected that they fall into a spiral of abject depression.  I think I can reasonably assume that detailing the dangers of this to most of my readership is not a necessary endeavour on my part; however, in government-speak, let’s just say that if these people are using DLA as income because they can’t work – well, refusing the benefit to them is not exactly likely to enable them to become your fabled ‘productive members of society’.

In the fourth instance, the medical professionals employed in these capacities seem universally fuckwitted (I’ve had experience of them prior to last year too).  They work for the Social Security Agencies, I am convinced, because they are unemployable elsewhere (and that’s saying something when you consider the calibre of some medics in the NHS!).  At no point are any specialists apparently involved.  This is not just applicable to psychiatric disorders, but things like MS, arthritis, deafness, learning disabilities, autism – you name it.  They’re just ‘generic’ doctors with no in-depth understanding of the sometimes complex illnesses with which they are presented.

The incompetence of the doctor I saw last year was underlined by the fact that he felt that I was at no point ‘disconnected from reality’ (hmm, psychosis and dissociation are a universal reality, then) and could return to work within a year to 18 months.  LOLZ like innit.  Look at me, people, look at me!  I’m a bloody mess of psychological spaghetti falling off a plate!  There is no way!

The incompetence of the Social Security Agency, in turn, was that they employed this useless tosser who didn’t even assess me under the correct section of the relevant legislation, and they didn’t even realise his mistake.  Despite my protestations, a year later they have still not responded to my complaints.  Furthermore, because I was not deemed to be ‘disconnected from reality’, I will be asked to attend work-focused interviews towards the end of this year – and unless there is a dramatic change in a mere few months, I will simply not be ready for these meetings, never mind for actual fucking work.

Not everyone that claims DLA also claims ESA or IB, but many do.  For those of us with a nervous or unstable disposition, having to have two evil medical exams will be a stress beyond stress; this may sound histrionic, but I really believe this could lead to full psychological – even psychotic – breakdowns.  They really are that bad.  Aside from the fact that this is horrendous for the person involved, and their friends and family, if we look at it from a macro perspective, such breakdowns will only cost the government more through the health care required.  Thus rendering the supposed savings redundant, yet again.

Now, if Georgie-Gideon-Tory-Boy Osbourne would link ESA assessments to those also claiming DLA, or vice versa, that might be moderately acceptable.  I could live with that, but not with having to go through this highly traumatic experience twice.

Additionally, the various Social Security Agencies across the UK need to make sure they employ a range of medical specialists.  Psychiatric specialists, yes, but also those in other medical disciplines.  Presumably psychiatry would need to be the largest, however, as mental health problems (as far as I know) account for many DLA claims, especially amongst people of my age.  I don’t even think these doctors would need to be full-time, nor would they need to be consultants.  A trainee at registrar or SHO level, perhaps also working elsewhere at other times, would be better than someone who has only the most basic specialist training whilst doing his or her MB.

They will never do this, of course.  But to make things fair, they damn well should.

The one saving grace of this proposed change to DLA, from an entirely personal angle, is that it won’t come into practice until 2013.  I sincerely hope that I will be able to work at that point, but therapy and recovery for the conditions with which I am afflicted takes bloody time, and we’ll just have to see.  One thing that I am determined not to do is return to work before I am completely psychologically ready – that would do neither me nor the employer any good.

For other people, who will never be able to work, this is a self-evident and undermining blow – and, frankly, something of an insult.

In theory, I do support some screening to make sure claimants are genuine.  Those that are claiming illegitimately give us all a bad name, and more importantly, they ‘scrounge’ money that would be much better spent elsewhere – such as the health service itself.

But at the end of the day, I would rather there were one or two fakers within the system than have the rest of us robbed of the entitlements that we need, whilst being thoroughly objectified and demoralised in the process.

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This Election in Norn Iron Mentalists: Part Four – The 'Others' and the End

I say ‘the End’ in the title, as this will obviously be my last post in this series before the big day tomorrow when we head to the polls; however, in the interests of equity, I will at some point look at what the main parties in the Republic of Ireland have to say on the provision of mental health services. The health service in the Republic is quite different from here in the North, but I’ll address that in the post in question. I’m not saying I will necessarily write this anytime soon, but I’ll get to it eventually.

Anyway, it’s the eve of the election and I’m simultaneously excited and anxious. I’m excited because I’m a total politics nerd, and I always get a thrill out of exercising my democratic right to vote. I’m anxious because I am worried that Gordon Brown will end up back in 10 Downing Street; I pathologically detest the man. I hate Cameron too, mind you, but nowhere near as much as Brown. Like so many people, I now am a fervent supporter of a Liberal Democrat win. I don’t think we’ll get it – not this election – but fingers crossed for the future.

Anyway, it’s kind of moot because I can’t vote for any of those three parties (unless you count the strange alliance between the Tories and the Ulster Unionists). We’ve already looked at both the Unionist and Nationalist parties…but are there any other options, and if so, what do they offer to the Mental Vote?

Well, the answer is that there are other options: here we are with the ‘Others’, the parties often forgotten in coverage of Northern Irish politics. Two of them – the Alliance and the Green Party – are not along the normal Northern Irish sectarian lines. The third – The Traditional Unionist Voice – clearly is. Of course, there are a number of other smaller parties in existence in our wee country; however, mostly they are not running in this general election. Some are – mostly independents – and you can see their details here. However, I am not exploring their positions on mental health provisions, for the simple reason that they are unlikely to have any, being mainly one person parties. Even if they do have something to say on the subject, their chances of election are minimal*, and even if they were elected, as single candidates in Westminster they would need to vote with bigger parties to have any influence whatsoever.

(* With the possible exception of Sylvia Hermon, as she is also the outgoing MP for South Down and has been considered fairly popular in her constituency).

So we’re left with the Alliance, the Greens and the TUV. what if anything do they have to say on mental health services provision?

The Alliance Party and Mental Health Service Provision

Ideologically, the Alliance Party are my preferred party, as they were the first Northern Ireland-specific party to embrace cross-community unity, rather than organising themselves along the usual tribal lines. It turns out, too, that there’s a lot to be grateful about in terms of their mental health policies.

Navigate your way over to here, a page on the Alliance’s website. An entire policy on mental health issues, rivalled only in my investigations by the DUP’s (which was shockingly comprehensive, and about which I wrote the other day).

Unfortunately the page presents some alarming statistics; apparently, there are 20% more mentally ill individuals in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the United Kingdom (which tallies with other material I’ve read attributing this greater incidence to Troubles-related PTSD and depression), yet simultaneously we are the least resourced region to tackle this group of health conditions. Well, what a surprise.

The Alliance Party propose to tackle this sorry state of affairs in the following ways:

  • [by] tackling segregation – addressing the exclusion of those with mental health and mental health issues;
  • [by] re-balancing the economy – addressing the costs to businesses and the loss of GDP that arises from mental health and learning disability, and allowing people to develop to their full potential; and
  • [by] providing of sustainable public services – delivery of a modern system of properly funded services.

All sounds grand to me. Of course, the difficulty with this is that it means fiscal resources will have to be allocated to mental health service provision instead of other areas of importance. I’m only speaking for myself here, but I would genuinely be happy to be more highly taxed/National Insurance-d if psychological and psychiatric resources were improved and developed. Furthermore, if some capital has to be removed from other (non-urgent) areas of the health service to accommodate the Alliance’s proposals, then I could quite easily live with that too. I admit that I am seriously biased here, but don’t forget the old statistic that at least one in four people will be directly affected by mental or emotional illness at some point in their lives. Some lobbyists are arguing now that the figure is one in three. The Alliance also point out that:

Over 19% of the total burden of disease in Western European Countries is attributable to mental illness compared to 17% for cardiovascular disease and 16% for cancer (WHO 2004)

It is sobering to know that mental illness affects more people than the openly-discussed ailments of heart disease and cancer in Western Europe – yet how often have you seen it mentioned in the media, at least without Sun-style sensationalism of ‘Schizo Freak Murders Fluffy Kitten!!!1!1!!!!eleven!!!’?

Moving on from what could easily become a rant, the Alliance Party at least do move on to tackle the fundamental issue of funding. One of the primary failing of political pledges, in my view, is that there is endless rhetorical sentiments expressed, without any substantive explanations of how the pledges can be achieved. At least here we have an awareness that achieving what is desirable will not an automatic development; it’s something that requires compromise and hard bloody work.

The party then move on to discuss what they term ‘Key Issues and Principles’, which (conveniently, a cynic might say) are right in line with the perennial Bamford Review.

The lines that interested me most was these ones: ‘Services should be needs-led‘ and ‘[we need] increased access [to] psychological therapies‘. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Yet as my own case underlines, that’s not the way it is in the current NHS in this region (and in the country in general in many cases), oh no. Access to psychological therapy and services in general are resources-led:

Therapist: I’m dealing with a really mental bird at the minute, she has about 403 different diagnoses and she needs long-term psychotherapy.

Manager: Throw a few weeks more at her, then kick her out, we can’t afford her.

Therapist: But what if she’s not better?

Manager: Oh my poor dear man, you’re new here, aren’t you? That’s not how it works!

The above was, of course, an entirely hypothetical scenario. *whistles innocently*

The Alliance also draw attention to the need to tackle stigma head on, and in a particularly commendable move address the issue of greater focus on the needs of carers for the mentally ill. They are the only party that have also pointed out that the recommendations of Bamford are not always fully transparent and, indeed, fully achievable.

Finally, they point out that the current situation regarding the Mental Health Act in Northern Ireland. Apparently, two major revisions were due to this legislation as it applies here in both 2011 and again in 2014. Sound fucking stupid to have two modifications? Well, the Alliance concur. In a demonstration of the fact that they can make a difference in this policy area, after their lobbying of Michael McGimpsey, the Health Minister, it has been agreed that – in principle at least – one modification will incorporate all the proposed statutory changes.

Result.

The Northern Ireland Green Party and Mental Health Service Provision

I’ve been wittering on in this series of posts about how we in Northern Ireland are not afforded the right to vote for the ‘mainland’ parties, but I suppose this kind of contradicts that a little. The Green Party are, of course, a national force – national in both the sense of the UK and Ireland.

Their widespread nature means that someone, somewhere, will inevitably have had to bring up the issue of mental health. In Northern Ireland, it seems primarily to be student Karly Green. Ms Green is heavily involved in developing a cross-party youth initiative on mental health, and that’s not to mention her considerable involvement in lobbying current politicians for better care for mental illness in our wee country.

(An aside – Ms Green’s hard work makes me wish I’d taken a more active role in politics at university. I was involved heavily in student politics – the running and management of the Students’ Union – but never in actual, meaningful party politics. I feel like I wasted my youth when I could have been out there making a fucking difference).

To get more details on the Greens’ position on this matter, however, we need to look at their policy South of the border. This has, quite obviously, questionable relevance to a Westminster election, but their UK health policy is surprisingly and disappointingly silent on the issue of mental illness.

As with the Alliance, the Greens argue that mental health is an area that is ‘greatly neglected,’ and interestingly, they’re the only party of the lot that I’ve looked at that has made more than a passing reference to preventative medicine and its relation to mental illness, which is to be applauded.

Of course, with this document focusing so heavily on the Republic, the contents are not always 100% applicable to those of us in the North; for example, they discuss how many patents with mental health difficulties are seen only under their GP. This is actually true up here too – the CMHTs generally only manage more serious cases – but in the Republic, the whole system is different, meaning that some people do not even have the primary care of a GP (something that is rarely true in Northern Ireland). Clearly this is an appalling state of affairs, and I would hope that the main parties down South are looking at this deficit too.

One point that applies to this jurisdiction is that they want to emphasis the need for psychological treatments, rather than an over-reliance on drugs. Remember this moment, readers, because it is possibly the only time you will see the Green Party agree with the DUP 😉 (see somewhere or other in the Unionist post).

Alarmingly, the Greens point out in this policy that apparently Irish mental health spending is less than half what it was 20 years ago. I suppose the rationale was along the usual lines that people were severely traumatised by the violence of the Troubles (any flippancy is to do with the fact that the Troubles existed at all; I don’t for a second see how anyone could not be traumatised by so much of what happened). Whatever the case, the fact that this party want to see at least 12% of the health budget devoted to this area is a worthwhile aim.

I particularly like their pledge to offer more post-graduate positions for the training of clinical psychologists. It rather seems to me that we could do with some of that up here too.

A few of the parties I’ve looked at in the course of this series have alluded very briefly to the human rights of the mentally ill (the UUP were the main ones that I mentioned, if memory serves me correctly). The Greens, however, have their own page as part of their general mental health policy devoted to this. Although their point is indeed commendable, unfortunately they miss the opportunity to fully address what could and should actually be done about the difficulties faced by many individuals on involuntary detentions. At least the UUP had the clear viewpoint that they would support amendment to legislation that shifted the legal onus on hospital release from the patient to their assessing tribunal.

In essence, in the area of mental health provision, the Green Party want to see greater staffing, greater funding and greater community, non-institutional care. I don’t think any of us would agree with these fundamental aims, but the approach sadly feels a little lacking in substance and discussion in how these aims could be achieved.

The Traditional Unionist Voice and Mental Health Service Provision

Hahahahahahahaha. I’m not even going to waste the energy it takes to type anything vaguely related to this non-entity of a vicious, nasty little scumfuck of a so-called political party. Well, except this rant of course. Just read their manifestoss (no spelling error). Nothing on mental health, scant on health in general, scant on education except their hate-filled bile, scant on sanity. I guess I’ll see Jim Allister in the bin.

Conclusion – Alliance, Greens or TUV

I don’t think you’ll be stunned to hear that the TUV are very instantly ruled out, and indeed it wouldn’t be a huge leap of faith for you to think I’m siding with Alliance as the victorious party amongst the so-called ‘Others’. The aims of the Green Party are certainly admirable, but they fail to fully articulate how they hope to achieve them, and cannot exemplify any occasions in which they’ve made a difference in this arena in the past. Furthermore, there is very little information on their exact position in this specific region.

The Alliance Party, on the other hand, have set out a number of very clear mental health objectives, and fully recognise the challenges of achieving these – yet they can articulate with some authority how they would achieve them. They can even cite an example of when their lobbying of a minister has previously made a difference to mental health issues.

I was not surprised to find that they had a mental health policy, but I was most gratified by its comprehensiveness and the fact that their aims are not all pie-in-the-sky-ness, but real, obtainable goals.

OVERALL CONCLUSION

So, here we find ourselves at 11pm on the eve of the election, having investigated the policies on mental health of the main UK parties, the NI Unionists, the NI Nationalists and, finally, this, the NI nebulously-named ‘Others’. Who’s getting my vote?

It’s important to note that I am not, nor should I be, a single issue voter. I have a view on the economy, on Iraq, on crime, education, etc etc etc.

Most of all I have a view on the tribalism that Northern Irish politics has traditionally presented. To that end, I have almost always supported the Alliance Party, and my enthusiasm about their mental health manifesto above was surely palpable. I was undecided as to whether to vote tactically tomorrow but this has been the final deciding factor: the Alliance Party will, once more, get my vote tomorrow. They won’t win, but I aim to be a conscience voter, and the things that they strive for (not just in terms of mental health) are things that, for the most part, I want.

In terms of this series of posts, I still think Alliance have trumped the other parties, but the mental health policies of Sinn Fein and the DUP were actually surprisingly impressive, even if I don’t trust either of those parties as far as I spit out my own shite. I was very disappointed by the UUP and the SDLP, parties that I otherwise don’t mind. It was hard work finding anything on the UUP at all, and whilst the SDLP had a little more substance, ultimately they seemed to be trying to echo points already laid out by SF.

It’s time mental health was an issue taken seriously by all political parties; just like I did at the bottom of the first post, I would again urge you to sign Rethink’s petition for the next government.

In conclusion – please, whatever you do, don’t be apathetic tomorrow. In some ways it doesn’t matter who you vote for, as long as you give enough of a shit to go out and put one ‘x’ on one bit of paper. This is a democracy. We have the right to vote here. Not everyone has that right, so please exercise yours.

Happy voting, darling readers.

This Election in Norn Iron Mentalists – Part Three: The Nationalists

So, last time we had a look at the mental health issues in the manifestos of the two main unionist parties in Northern Ireland. Today it’s the turn of the two main nationalist parties, Sinn Féin (SF) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

There is a certain curiosity in the potential influence of both of these parties. SF, perhaps unsurprisingly, may take a certain amount of interest in the politics of the Irish Republic, discussed mainly in its Parliament, the Dáil. In that regard, their policies might not necessarily fit a similar pattern to those of the other Northern Ireland parties, which are more likely to be influenced by their colleagues in Westminster. More surprising is the fact that, despite their status as supporters of a United Ireland, it’s quite possible that the SDLP are influenced similarly to the Unionist parties. They are, in fact, Northern Ireland pseudo-surrogates of the UK Labour party.

There has often been arguments from many voters here, me included, that because we don’t have any of the three main UK parties (or, indeed, Dáil parties) that our voice is not heard in Westminster (or Dublin). The Labour party try to get around this by citing their loose association with the SDLP – but, at least as far as many unionists perhaps unfairly see it, the SDLP only represent the nationalist side of the community, and therefore are not a party that can convey their needs and views. Of course, the Ulster Unionist Party are now allied with the UK Conservatives – but the SDLP shoe still fits, simply in a different way; not many nationalists see the UUP as a party that can represent them. The Liberal Democrats briefly mooted the possibility of setting up their own branch here, but to the best of my knowledge, that never came to proper fruition.

To that frustrating end, it might seem favourable that the SDLP have some alliance in London; the problem often is, however, that they seem to take the Labour whip without due regard for their actual constituents (to be fair, this is a problem in many, if not all, seats). I’d always thought of them as a good constituency party until last week when I watched the Northern Ireland party leaders’ debate, and Margaret Ritchie of the SDLP admitted that her MPs voted with the Labour party more often than not.

Still, they take their seats, unlike SF. To be fair, the SF rationale is that – as Irish Republicans – they do not wish to swear allegiance to the UK monarch. I really do understand that issue of principle, but the difficulty is that it complicates the party’s ability to lobby the Westminster executive. SF contend that Westminster is becoming decreasingly relevant to Northern Ireland, what with our devolved government at Stormont. In some ways that is true, as we decide on the allocation of fiscal resources. On the other hand, the overall source of those fiscal resources is, ultimately, still London.

So, how would each of these two parties allocate this capital? Will they consider mntal health provision as a priority?

Sinn Fein (SF) and Mental Health Service Provision

My first reaction to what I see of SF’s mental health policies is one of encouragement. I suppose one should expect reasonable discussion on matters like these from a party that is, broadly speaking, socialist in nature, but it’s still nice to see it in black and white.

The first article of interest to me was this one from the West Tyrone branch of the party. Here SF discuss the provisions – or, maybe more accurately, the lack thereof – for forensic patients.

Anyone who knows me will know that crime is one issue on which I am relatively right-of-centre. I believe in retribution, and public protection, at least for the most serious crimes. However, I do make an excepton for individuals with serious mental ilnesses who are clearly not fully cognisant of the folly or danger of their actions. I resent people simply claiming mental illnss as some sort of excuse, but in genuine cases, the personnel concerned need to be treated as patients to be rehabilitated and treated, and not as criminals. I don’t have the statistics to hand, but I understand that in most prisons in the UK and Ireland, at least a significant minority of prisoners have serious mental health trouble. Would these people really present a danger to society if their illnesses were adequately managed and treated? How can incarceration lead to their recovery?

SF clearly concur that services for forensic patients are wholly inadequate. As councilor Declan McAleer says:

Rather than treating these people as patients in need of care and support, they are frequently treated as ‘felons’ and find themselves being shuffled between court appearances, case conferences and confinement.

This lack of a proper joined up approach… prolongs the day when they are restored to full health.

Councillor McAleer then points out that, with the recent devolution of justice and policing to the Northern Ireland assembly, hopefully there will be increased communication between the health service and criminal justice service here. Since the devolution only took place last month (April) it is of course far too soon to say whether or not there has been much progress in this regard, but it is a situation that I will continue to monitor.

The document further contends that a high security unit is a necessity here in the province; it is claimed that 78% of males and 50% of females in our prisons have personality disorders. We only have one medium security unit; any patients/prisoners requiring high security are presently sent to Great Britian. I should imagine that sending them to a unit far from their home, friends and family would be a serious inhibition to their recovery.

Moving on from forensic matters, SF have what I feel is a very positive message about mental health service provision, as published in this page of Republican newspaper An Phoblacht. They detail four key mental health issues that they intend to address, specifically as part of their 2010 General Election manifesto:

• Implement proposals of the Bamford Review and raise awareness about mental health issues
• Pursue implementation of an all-Ireland suicide prevention strategy
• Support the ‘card before you leave’ system to provide vulnerable patients at Accident and Emergency units with advice, contact numbers and follow up appointment details
• A new system to provide dedicated perinatal mental health services on an all-Ireland basis, ensuring that pre-natal and post-natal patients can be cared for with their new-borns when this is required

Four objectives don’t sound like an awful lot – but (a) they are four sensible, achievable goals and (b) although other parties do have positions on mental health service provision, as far as I have seen none of them have directly detailed their policies in this area for the 2010 election.

Finally on Sinn Fein, I’d like to draw your attention to this article. This relates specifically to the Republic of Ireland, but is nevertheless relevant to voters in Northern Ireland, as it shows SF’s position on mental illness and privisions for same. In essence, this piece discusses “savage” cuts from the local health Trust, meaning the closure of an acute unit and a day unit. The SF Dáil leader and spokesman on health in Eire, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, expresses his concern and anger at the prospect in this article, and details how he has lobbied the Republic’s health minister to seek assurances that the closures will not take place as planned. In particular, Ó Caoláin is concerned with the closure of the day unit in question, as it helps to prevent institutionalisation, something the Republic has sought to minimise through various initiatives. All in all, SF’s protests at these cuts seem encouraging.

The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Mental Health Service Provision

Apparently

The SDLP believes that good mental health is imperative to an individual’s general well being.

Such insight!

To be fair, like SF, they do lay out objectives which, whilst small in number, are potentially achieveable and not some sort of spin doctored pipedream. This booklet was written as their manifesto for the 2007 Northern Ireland Assembly elections, but I cannot imagine that the points therein are no longer normative; particularly with the ongoing discussion of the Bamford Review in mental health, these points are surely still relevant. The positive message of them is unlikely to be something on which the party would renege.

Essentially the SDLP would also seek to deliver an all-Ireland suicide prevention strategy, seek to build a cross-border forum on mental health issues and address “as a matter of urgency” what they call the chronic lack of services in both child and adult psychiatry and mental health in general. In part this would be achieved through full implementation of the recommendations by Bamford. I note that their comments here are essentially an elaboration of their 2005 General Election manifesto, thus giving further weight to the idea that their policies will remain broadly similar now. For what it’s worth, here is their 2010 manifesto – but it is disappointly sparse in its discussion of mental health issues.

The document also fixates on human rights for those that are mentally unwell. Although it does not specifiy the current infringements, we all know that this is a big issue for the mentally ill – in particular in regards to involuntary hospitalisation. The party also note that mental health service provision for adolescents is particularly crap, and claim that this would be a key point for them to address.

On that note, I was really pleased to see this piece on the SDLP Youth site discussing how a delegation of young people from not only the SDLP but all the other main parties plus the Alliance and the Greens launched their very own mental health strategy in Belfast in April last year. It makes a wonderful change to see the typical boundaries transgressed in the name of unity on such an important issue, and is to the credit of all the youth branches, not just that of the SDLP.

And…well, that’s about it really.

Conclusion – SF or the SDLP?

Although their siding with Labour at Westminster does annoy me (despite my earlier whinging that we need representatives from here in the main UK parties), I have always had respect for the SDLP. I don’t agree with them on every issue, of course, but their relative lack of fixation on the whole Ireland/UK debate was refreshesing from a party who were still intrinsically linked to that mode of thinking.

However, I must report that I am rather underwhelmed by their policies on mental health service provision. I’m not a one-issue voter by any means, but this is clearly an arena of much importance to me, and I would have thought a socialist party who would seem to be all for the NHS system would have had more to say on conditions that will, at any given time, affect one in four of us.

I’ve never been Sinn Fein’s biggest fan because their primary aim has always been the unification of this island. I don’t object to that per se, but it’s similar to the beef I have with their unionist counterparts, the DUP – there are so many more important issues than where the fucking border lies. However, I must admit that I am really rather impressed with the time they’ve taken to outline their position on mental health issues and, in particular, that the goals that they’ve set are not just there to look good – I believe that their manifesto aims in this area are actually quite obtainable, and they have given more space to writing about mental illness and provision therefore than any of the other parties other than, shockingly, the DUP.

But having said that, as with all articles from political parties, one has to ask oneself how much of it is rhetorical and how much of it they would really implement. My current thinking is that they are probably fairly well-intentioned in making all these pledges – but how much of it gets lost in the big pile of bureacratic shite that our politicans have to deal with? It remains to be seen.

Based on the literature, though, as far as the provision of mental health services goes, SF beat their nationalist rivals hands down.

Next time: a look at the Alliance Party and some of the smaller parties that are running for office, plus my conclusions on which party is offering the most to us Norn Iron mentalists.

This Election in Norn Iron Mentalists – Part Two: The Unionists

Northern Ireland politics is, in the main, a load of divisive nonsense (in my view, anyhow).  It infuriates me that I cannot vote for either the Westminster nor the Dáil parties; we have to have our own little set of philistines, and they are built – by and large – upon sectarian, bigoted lines.  You have to be, broadly speaking, a unionist (favouring the union with Britain) or a nationalist (in support of a united Ireland).  By and large, unionism is supported by members of Protestant faiths and nationalism by Roman Catholics, though there are occasional ‘anomalies’.

I come from a unionist background, but am a very disaffected member of the breed.  I prefer Sinn Fein to the Democratic Unionists, even though it must be said that I don’t like Sinn Fein that terribly much.  I don’t particularly dislike either the Social and Democratic Labour Party nor the Ulster Unionist Party, who are more moderate parties still built on the nationalist/unionist issue, but I find it sad that politicans who have a serious chance of making a difference here still have to be ‘on one side or the other’.

Arguably, it’s not that different in Britain: Labour, working class / Tories, middle and upper classes.  It’s still a case of ‘sides’.  Except that it’s not, because both of those parties essentially stand for the same things now, what with the coming of New Labour and the so-called third way, and a subtle Tory shift to the centre-left.  Whilst there are, of course, still plenty of left-wing Labour MPs, and plenty of right-wing Tories, the two partys’ front benches – and other areas in which political difference is mad – consist of a bunch of sychophantic, power-hungry irritants who mirror each other in significant numbers of ways.

The folks on the hill at Stormont are also ‘sycophantic, power-hungry irritants’ (perhaps in some cases more so than the Brits) – but each side is still very different.  Aside from the obvious UK/Ireland debate, the DUP, for example, are religious (Free Presbyterian, mainly) reactionaries, whereas their power-sharing partners Sinn Fein are socialists who supposedly do not let religion impact upon their politics (though they are almost exclusively Catholics, whether that’s just in name or in actual practice).

Anyway, this is turning into a rant about the status of politics here, and that’s not what it’s intended to be.  I want to see what the various parties have to say on mental health.  In true Norn Iron style, let’s look at it along divisive lines.  Today I bring you TEH UNIONISTZ.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Mental Health Provision

The DUP should have a view on this issue, as recently one of their former MPs/MLAs and the wife of the leader – after revelations about her financial dealings and private life – was undergoing intensive psychiatric treatment.  Iris Robinson had also claimed, well before the private life issues were made public, that she struggled with mental illness.  But…can we really expect some tolerance and compassion from a party like this?

Well, I have to say – on the face of it at least, they are taking this issue rather more seriously than I expected.  They have an entire agenda on Northern Irish mental health provision published here.  (Perhaps rather regrettably for the DUP, a few pictures of an apparently sane Iris are splattered all over the document, harking back to the days when she was ((publically)) just a bigoted wingnut, rather than a mental, bigoted wingnut).

Overall the document is surprisingly encouraging.  They consistently press the need for larger and more specialist community services, crucially (in my case) including the necessity for services for personality disorders (which as regular readers will know is something with which I have recently taken much issue).  They point out that research is needed to establish just how prevalent personality disorders are in the province, something I would welcome as currently the Trusts seem to get away with saying they won’t treat you as they don’t have the facilities.  Demonstrating the levels of PD would surely put an end to this – or at least would allow services to be developed in the geographical areas in which PD is most prevalent.

Other areas requiring more developed services here, according to this document, are eating disorders, addictions, learning disability and autism, and CAHMS services.  I cannot disagree with any of this.

In terms of therapy, they slam the current waiting times, though recognise that changing this could take years.  I note with interest that they feel “sustained” therapy changes lives.  Perhaps I should ask C if he votes for them.

One thing that irritated me was that they are very critical of medication and hospitalisation.  In terms of medication, I take their point that treating PTSD and depression related to the Troubles would generally be best managed by psychological treatment; however, this belies the truth – in my mind, anyway – that the medical model is really not that bad.  Yes, therapy should be offered and sustained – however, if drugs ease suffering thus helping to enable productive discussion in therapy, then I fail to see what is so wrong with them.

As far as hospital goes, the DUP have put great emphasis on community services.  That’s fine; no one wants to have to go to the bin, and if the remit of the various CMHTs can be increased, then bring it on.  However, there are times when hospitalisation is a necessary evil – and I know of no one who liked it exactly, but I do know of people whose lives it saved and, furthermore, whose lives it ultimately improved (though, for the sake of balance, I do know of individuals whose lives it ruined too).

At one point the DUP assert that beds are being used ‘inefficiently’ in both acute and long-term psychiatric wards; I have no idea as to the accuracy of this statement, but surely that judgement should be in the hands of a consultant, and not a politican?  They contend that in these cases patients are more than capable of living in the community – but, again, I question how they can reach that conclusion.  From what I understand, if someone is well enough to leave hospital, then they leave hospital.  The DUP’s fixation with discharging people seems at best misguided, at worst dangerous.

Overall – ostensibly speaking, I’m more impressed than I expected to be.  I expected to have to wade through dozens of articles just to get a snippet of information, and yet here they have a reasonable sized policy devoted to this niche area.  It’s not faultness, and as ever the danger is that it’s founded entirely upon rhetoric, but it’s a start.  Can we say the same for the Ulster Unionist Party?

The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Mental Health Provision

The UUP have become the little surrogates of the British Conservative party in recent months.  Originally calling themselves ‘Unionists and Conservatives – New Force’ (WTF?), they have now mostly downgraded this simply to ‘Conservatives and Unionists’.  Theoretically, therefore, were the UUP the main NI party in Westminster, we (as constituents represented in Parliament) might expect to have more political influence than we presently do.  However, even if the UUP won every NI seat (which would clearly never happen), it would only be in the tightest of votes in which 18 people could make a difference.  And in any case, I bet they have policies that diverge from that of their new parent party.

Like the DUP, you’d expect the Ulster Unionists to have something significant to say about mental health; Michael McGimpsey, one of their MLAs, is the Health Minister at Stormont.  Yet I can find surprisingly little information on their outlook on this subject.  There are plenty of search results, and a number of news stories and whatnot, yet there does not appear to be a specific policy or mental health agenda developed by the party.

One of the first results that seems of interest is, hilariously, from the DUP (and more hilariously again, it’s specifically from good ol’ Iris, who before her political demise served on a health committee at Stormont).  But let’s just try to ignore the source for a minute and see what is said.

The most alarming assertion in the article is that, during Mr McGimpsey’s time as Minister, only 5% of health service spending has been devoted to mental health.  Given the severity of many mental illnesses and, in particular given that it will affect 25% of people at some point, this is an incredible statistic.  Five per cent.  Five.  5% to deal with, potentially, 25% of people.

Mrs Robbo continues by pointing out that the DHSSPS is “committed to” the development of community mental health services, but notes that this will require a fundamental overhaul of services as they presently exist.  She contends that little effort has been made in this regard.

Regardless of her view that nothing of worth is happening vis a vis this ‘overhaul’, I would query how such changes could possibly be made when mental health services are allocated such a meagre income from the Department, if the 5% statistic quoted is in fact correct.  I wonder how it is even possible to take care of the most severely ill people on such a figure.  OK, so I can’t comment on the actual figure – 5% of what, exactly? – but I know that the entire NHS both here and in Britian struggles on the billions it’s allocated, so throwing such a tiny minority of money into this necessary sector of it suggests to me that financial management is inevitably going to present difficulties.

A second link describes how Mr McGimpsey attended the opening of a new inpatient facility for adolescents in South Belfast in February this year.  £9million was invested in this ward, and a children’s ward is due to open next month.

It is difficult to say whether or not these two wards were impacted to any significant degree by the UUP’s own policies.  Given that they both opened/will open in the first half of 2010, it’s probable that they were planned well in advance of the current Assembly, which has been in place since 2007.  Ergo McGimpsey and the UUP could well have little to nothing to do with this.

Additionally, the creation of two hospital wards for those under 18 seems at odds with the Departmental policy of promoting community care.  Of course they will and indeed ought to still accept that there are occasions during which hospitalisations are necessary, but millions of pounds spent on new ones when others exist does strike me as somewhat curious.  Why not use those funds in developing a better CAHMS service and improving already-existing in-patient facilities?

And what about us adults?

A more encouraing perspective comes from a transcript of Hansard from the House of Lords, which chronicles a debate on an amendment to the Mental Health (NI) Order 2004.  During the debate, it is noted by a number of NI Lords that mental health services here are, even in comparison to the rest of the UK, pretty shit.  Lord Rogan, representing the Ulster Unionists, proclaims that he welcomes the Order, which – in essence – deals with human rights during involuntary detentions.  Specifically, the Order seeks to move the burden of proof from the patient having to prove they are well enough to be released, to the tribunal having to prove that the patient is ill enough to remain sectioned.

Lord Rogan, of course, throws a bit of a spanner in the works in that he raises a number of questions as to how this legal change would operate in practice.  However, far from being outraged by this, I think this is a sensible course of action.  It seems evident that Rogan and other Lords agree in principle with the Order, but it would be remiss not to consider certain legal and logistical practicalities that accompany such a profound modification to mental health law.  Asking for clarification on the potential issues suggests to me a considered approach to the implementation of the Order, hopefully meaning that it would be a more secure law when finally passed.  Ignoring potential difficulties and then having to deal with them as they arose would have been irresponsible.

Finally, although there is little detail here, an interesting meeting was recently had between the sectarian-neutral Alliance Party and the UUP.  Alliance leader David Ford commented that his party’s stance on mental health provision was broadly similar to that of the UUP.  Both parties were apparently alarmed at cuts to the health budget from the DUP (thanks to the Department of Finance and Personnel’s budgetry allocations), and (as above) note that mental health services here are inadequate in comparison to those in Great Britain.  Having found “common ground”, the UUP and Alliance want to work together (and with other parties, too) to improve matters.

Conclusion – DUP or UUP?

Ostensibly the DUP seem to have more directly immersed themselves in a policy for mental health services than the UUP.  I was surprised to find their document directly discussing the issue, and was subsequently disappointed to not find similar from the UUP.  On the face of it, the DUP’s position seems considerably more favourable, and – rhetoric or otherwise – I was impressed by the time they invested in their document.

However.  The DUP are, in my view, an insidious party.  They might be very good as constituency MPs (and to be fair I understand that, for all sides of the community, they are), but my instinct is not to trust them on basically anything that happens in a wider arena, including NHS provisions.  If, as the Alliance and UUP claim, Peter Robinson (formerly the Finance Minister) has made health budget cuts – then we should be alarmed, regardless of what his party says in some nice little booklet.  Plus – there’s no way I could bring myself to vote for these people, unless they gave me a personal, written guarantee of indefinitely continued mental health care.  I’d vote for anyone who did that, but it ain’t going to happen.

But the UUP aren’t exactly wonderful in this subject either.  The broad support of and assurance-seeking on the Mental Health Order was vaguely encouraging, but I was incredibly troubled by the 5% statistic.  OK, OK – that came from a press release from Iris fucking Robinson.  Salt and pinches of it, I know.  But I doubt even Iris would have the balls to make up such a statistic; having served as the Chair of the Stormont Health Committee, she would have been bound to have been able to back this up with evidence.

In short – I don’t believe in the DUP, and I’m underwhelmed by the UUP who could have done so much more, and didn’t.  So something of a fail all round.

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Next time: we meet the nationalist parties.  Do Sinn Fein and the SDLP care about our mental health?

Article of the Week and This Election in Norn Iron Mentalists – A Serial Insomniac Special Part One: Britain

I haven’t written an AotW for some weeks, mainly as I’ve been too mental to actually read anything that I think is worthy of inclusion here.  I’m not particularly less mental at the minute, as Monday’s post will presumably attest; however, coverage of the matter that I intend to discuss is hard to miss at the best of times, and especially so when one is a complete current affairs junky.  Yes, my dears, that can only mean one thing.  I present to you:  The Epic Serial Insomniacal Journey into UK Politics and the 2010 Election.

I’m addicted to politics.  It drives me round the bend, but I’m addicted to it nevertheless.  I received an ‘A’ in my ‘A’ Level in it, and very, very nearly studied at university (the subject that I ended up studying is strongly impacted by it too).  I watch Question Time (and scream at the TV) and This Week most weeks, and now that I am a dolescum tend to be hooked on The Daily Politics as well.  I watch about three news programmes in a row, at least twice a day, mainly to see what the twats in Westminster, the Dáil and that Godforsaken shithole that is Stormont are doing.  I invariably find myself enraged, but always strangely excited at the same time.

Anyway, I’m not going to subject you to a full discussion of the parties and the rhetoric and lies that we can expect from each of them; there’s hundreds of blogs and websites (probably thousands) that will do that for you much more ably than I can.  Nevertheless, I’d like to zoom in on a couple of things – specifically, party policies on mental health provision and in particular views from Northern Ireland on same.  I was going to do it all in one post, but to my surprise it turns out that it would too big for that.  Therefore, today I will bring you…

Mental Health Provision in the Manifestos of Parties in Great Britain

Note that the heading says ‘Great Britain’, and not ‘the UK’.  The two are distinct, and (annoyingly for me) that is reflected in the division of political parties.  For those not conversant with the bizarre and uncodified constitution of the United Kingdom, ‘Great Britain’ refers to England, Scotland and Wales.  These countries – and, let’s face it, in particular England – house the ‘main’ parties of the Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and Labour.  Scotland also have the Scottish Nationalist Party, and Wales have Plaid Cymru.

I’m not going to get into a major discussion of any of these parties, mainly as it’s been done elsewhere.  Moreover, in some ways what happens in Westminster only tangentially affects us in Northern Ireland – on the other hand, though, they’re still responsible for how much money our Department of Finance receives to spend in whatever way, so in that sense they still have a lot of political clout.

Anyway, Mental Nurse have run a very entertaining and interesting series, known as This Election in Mentalists, exploring the mental health policies (or lack thereof) of the main parties (the title of which as you can see I have stolen).  You may notice that I’ve not commented at all in any of the posts, despite being a relative regular over at Mental Nurse; I was scared that I’d get into a fight, to be honest, as I tend to be quite…ahem…’direct’ in my expression of political views.  Nothing gets heads rolling more than politics.

So that’s the first article I’d like to mention, but on a similar theme, I was highly dismayed to note in Thursday’s electoral debate between the leaders of the three main parties that – in discussion of the NHS – not one of the three mentioned services for mental illness.  Two things struck me about this.  Firstly, to ignore this group of conditions in such a blatant and public way is to further distance it from physical illness, which in turn surely adds further fuel to the cruel fire of stigma.  Secondly, stigmatised or not, mental illness will affect at least one in four people at some point in their lifetime.  That is bound to have a lot of impact on NHS spending and other resources, and on other macro issues such as the economy (owing to days lost to sick leave and whatnot).  The parties must surely have a view on this matter.

Well, mercifully, one of them does – and it seems to be a more encouraging outlook than the apparent silence of the others.  Unfortunately, despite his current surge in popularity, this man is still the one least likely to end up as the occupant of Number 10 on 7 May.  He is Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats.

Now, this article, from politics.co.uk, is slightly out of date, being published as it was in September last year.  Nevertheless, everyone knew at that point that a General Election would be called for early May, so it seems reasonable to assume that this information can be included as part of Clegg’s policy concern in the unlikely event that his party forms the next government.  (Side note: as things stand, there is a very real possibility of a hung parliament, meaning that although Clegg is unlikely to become PM, the Lib Dems could still form a coalition government with one of the other two parties.  That may mean their policies having more weight in Westminster after all, even if still not quite up to the level of a single governing party).

Anyhow, to get to the point (finally), Clegg has pledged to protect mental health services on the NHS from budget cuts specifically related to the recession.  It’s a shame that the pledge carries that caveat – shouldn’t we be protecting mental health services from all budget cuts – but nevertheless, it’s a public act of solidarity for those of us using these services, which to the best of my knowledge is a lot more than can be said for David Cameron and Gordon Brown.

As this article points out:

[The NHS area of] Mental health receives only a fraction of the funding awarded to other health conditions such as cancer, even though one in four people will experience mental health problems at some point in their lives.

I find this reality unsurprising, of course, but utterly outrageous all the same.  One could argue that cancer is, or at least can be, a fatal disease.  Mental illness, in and of itself they might say, is not thus deadly.  But is that really true?  I don’t have any statistics to hand, but I know the suicide rate in this country is not as low as it should be.  If left untreated – or if inadequately treated – suicide is often the natural progression of some of the more severe mental illnesses.  So yes, my dears, mental illness certainly is oftentimes deadly.

What is most troubling to my mind is that many suicides could probably have been prevented had there been adequate intervention and/or treatment (as to whether or not suicide is a right, and I actually happen to believe that it is – well, that’s a post for another day).  Oh, but the person didn’t seek that help! Quite often this is true, but (a) seeking treatment for mental illness is still horribly and unfairly stigmatised, something that I would like to expect the next government would seek to eradicate through proper investment and (b) I know from bitter experience, and know from the bitter experiences of others, that asking for help – no matter how desperately – does not always (or even often) get you it.  Surely these issues are directly correlated with resources invested (or rather not) in mental health services.

As Nick Clegg comments, “It is a false economy not to invest in mental health services.”

Finally for now, I’d like to draw your attention to Rethink’s General Election Campaign.  As you may know, Rethink is one of Britain’s largest mental health related charities (sadly they recently demerged from their Northern Ireland branch, now known as Charity A, but they are probably still the most influential lobby group for this demographic in Westminster and therefore still deserve the attention of those of us over here).  The election campaign includes a petition that they intend to forward to the next government, that demands better access to services, the tackling of stigma and discrimination, and fairer treatment to prisoners with mental health difficulties.  Please go and sign the petition; we really need the new government to take notice.

An excellent suggestion that Rethink make is that if you are ‘doorstepped’ by your local candidates, please ask them what their party’s (and indeed their own individual) policy on mental health provision is.

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Tomorrow we move into the murky realms of Northern Ireland politics and ask what the the Unionist parties – the Democratic Unionists and Ulster Unionists – are doing for the mental vote.