Mental Health Care debate

Charles Walker leads a Parliamentary debate calling for a new approach to mental health care based on compassion, understanding and respect.

Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Thank you for calling me to initiate tonight’s Adjournment debate, Mr Speaker. May I alert the Minister who is responding this evening to an excellent report published today by Mind entitled, “Listening to Experience—An Independent Inquiry into Acute and Crisis Mental Healthcare”? That paper comprises more than 350 interviews with people who have experience of acute and crisis mental health care. I say to the Minister—although he probably knows this—that the report makes for very difficult reading. However, there is also room for huge optimism.

I am delighted to be joined tonight by the hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) and my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), who will be making brief contributions. I have also given permission for a few of my chosen and near colleagues to make brief interventions because I know how much the issue matters to them.

We need a new approach to the provision of mental health care in this country. Provision should be based on compassion, understanding and respect. That is what comes out of the Mind report and the 350 voices it contains. It should not be a punishment to be mentally ill, but too often it is. People who suffer from mental illness feel hugely excluded from mainstream society, and we need to approach them in a compassionate way. We need to reach out to them and draw them near, not push them away.

James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. The report is shocking in many ways. Does he agree that, if we are to develop a compassionate model of mental health care, we should focus on providing talking therapies more extensively to those people who come into the acute and crisis environment, so that they can be seriously helped with the conditions they present?

Mr Walker: My hon. Friend makes a fantastic point and is a fantastic attendee of the all-party group on mental health. He has a great interest in this area and I will come on to answer his point directly in a few moments.

Over the past 30 years, we have made fabulous progress in moving away from the use of asylums, although we have had problems in doing that. We have talked about care in the community but, too often, the community has not been there to provide that care. We must continue to address that. In closing the asylums, we must remember that there is still a need for accommodation when people are in severe crisis. I do not like to talk about beds or hospital wards, but we do need accommodation. Sometimes, people are so ill that they need to be hospitalised and looked after, but in a caring environment.

I am concerned that, with the closure of small acute wards, we are moving towards having much larger hospital environments. Some of those are, without doubt, excellent. However, as the report identifies, some of them have too many of the characteristics of past asylums. As I said, being ill should not be a punishment. It concerns me greatly to read of people going to institutions where they fear for themselves and are frightened daily. How can someone start to recover from a mental health crisis when they are terrified every day in their environment? Many of the report’s respondents said that institutions were so terrifying that staff seemed to spend most of their time trying to stop nasty things from happening. We must get away from that. We have made progress, but we are not doing so at a fast enough pace.

Let me move away from discussing hospitals. Sometimes people need to leave their home. Therefore, we need settings that can take people out of their home, but that are not traditional mental health hospitals. In the report, I came across two fantastic initiatives. I knew about one because it is being pioneered in Hertfordshire, but another one I did not know about: crisis housing. That means that, when someone is at home and having a crisis, they do not have to go to hospital. They recognise that they are having a crisis, as do the people who work with them, and they can be sent to a home where they can go for just a few hours—four, five or six—to talk through their concerns with people who can understand what they are going through because, often, they have experienced mental illness problems themselves, so they are talking to their peers. Alternatively, they can spend up to three or four days there to get through the period of acute crisis, so that their equilibrium is coming back and they may be able to go back home and face the world again. Crisis housing sounds like a fantastic innovation, because we have to get away from the idea that when someone is terribly ill the only place for them to be is in a traditional mental health hospital. They may need a bed, but it does not have to be in a hospital.

The other thing that has caught my attention, and is being pioneered in Hertfordshire, is the idea of host families. This is a fantastic initiative that people have been developing in France and that Hertfordshire is leading the way on in this country. If someone is not really up to being at home with their family or looking after themselves, they need some extra support. There are families out there who will take them into their home and allow them to become part of their everyday life. Those people may well, and probably do, have experience of dealing with mental health illness themselves. They may be in recovery, they may have recovered, or they may have a child, a brother or sister who has been in these very dark places, so they understand and know what their house guest is going through. This is a fabulous way of providing support. It can last from three weeks to 12 weeks, and it is there to make these people feel part of a working, functioning family community. They have responsibilities and chores, but they are given the support and love that they need to make progress.

However, those solutions may not be right for everyone, and many people will, on occasion, need to be hospitalised. The report identifies that many tens of thousands of people each year go into a hospital setting. I hope that we can reduce that overall number. Nevertheless, we need accommodation to look after them. As I said, too much of the small traditional accommodation has been shut down. That has been positioned as an unalloyed good thing: “Hooray, we’ve got rid of mental health beds; hooray, we don’t need them any more; hooray, the community can pick up all these people.” In fact, the community is not always in a position to pick them up. Crisis helplines that are meant to be running for 24 hours a day often run only for part of the day, and that is simply not good enough. A mental health crisis does not happen between 9 am and 5 pm; it is just as likely to happen between 9 pm and 5 am. We have to accept that the community is not always there for those people. Now that we have closed these beds, which were often in very small wards very close to people’s families, too often people who are committed into an acute environment can be sent up to 200 miles away from their home and from the people who care for them and can nurture them and provide them with support. To me, that is not progress.

We are now moving towards having larger mental health units. As I have said, some of those are very good but, as the report identifies, many are not. The threshold for being admitted to acute care is now so very high, because there are so few beds to accommodate people, that only the most ill people get into hospital. I have to say that, too often, their experience is pretty frightening and pretty unpleasant. I am not calling for less accommodation, but I am calling for us to do things differently, so that when we, as a society and as communities, are put in charge of people with a severe mental health problem, we go out and embrace them. We do not put them in a frightening environment where the doors are locked, where they are restrained, often face down, where they are terrified, and where they feel under pressure and in danger of being assaulted; we create environments where they can go and get well. With the mentally ill, we are not mending bones. I do not want to stick people in bed for 20 hours a day and put their leg in a brace. We are not doing that; we are not in that business. What we are in the business of doing is putting people in an environment where they can get well; where, as my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris) said, they can talk through their problems; where they can come to terms with their problems; where they can speak to people who have been where they have been, then recovered and gone on. That is the kind of environment that we need to create in the acute setting.

That calls for a radical approach. Perhaps we have to stop talking about hospitals and beds, and instead start talking about accommodation and wellness centres, where people can go to get well and where they feel relaxed, comfortable and safe so that they can focus on themselves and their own mental health. When people have a mental health crisis, all too often they are simply terrified and feel that the world is against them. If somebody who is feeling like that is put in one of these institutions, I am sure that it does their mental health no good at all.

Nigel Adams (Selby and Ainsty) (Con): What is my hon. Friend’s experience of youngsters who have to go to such hospitals and who find themselves in mixed-age wards?

Mr Walker: That is a very important area. Great strides are being made to end mixed-sex and mixed-age wards. How terrifying it must be for a young person to be in such an environment for the first time with people of all ages, with all types of experiences, illnesses and conditions. That is not acceptable, particularly if that young person is 200 miles or more from their family. That is not a way to treat people.

As I have said, being mentally ill is not a crime. We need to reach out and embrace these people, and we need to hold them close. We need to create environments where they can get better and focus on themselves. Talking therapies have a huge part to play in that. This is a fabulous report because it focuses on the areas of weakness in the current system. That provides the Government and Back Benchers with an opportunity to work together to get it right. I will now sit down and allow the hon. Member for Ashfield to join in.

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