Slowly, progress is being made on the mental health front. The government has committed to parity of treatment between mental and physical illnesses. Ed Miliband made an important speech recently making clear the need for government and society to change its attitudes to mental illness, not least because of the social and economic costs of failing to do so.
A lot of this echoes the work of Time to Change and the mental health charities MIND and Rethink Mental Illness, who welcome these steps in the right direction, but know how far off we are from the vision being set out by both main parties.
Today sees the publication of the report from The Schizophrenia Commission and this guest blog on the subject comes from one its members, Rethink Mental Illness’ chief executive Paul Jenkins.
Imagine being diagnosed with an illness for which there is no cure. The best drugs available were developed in the 1960s and haven’t vastly improved since then. Your medication makes you rapidly gain weight and doubles your chances of getting heart disease. You have about a 10% chance of getting all the treatments NICE believes you should have access to. If you have to go into hospital, you may be unlucky enough to be treated in units where you don’t feel safe and where staff are burnt out and demoralized. On top of all this, you are shunned by society and treated with suspicion and fear by many.
If the illness we were talking about here was cancer or Alzheimer’s, there would be a national outcry. Because the illness is schizophrenia, there simply isn’t. People with schizophrenia and their families have quietly had to endure substandard care and treatment for too long. None of us should accept this.
It doesn’t have to be this way. For the last year, I have been part of The Schizophrenia Commission , an inquiry into the state of care for people with schizophrenia and what needs to change. Our report, ‘The abandoned illness’ published today, sets out what could be done to transform the lives of everyone affected.
The cost of schizophrenia to society is £11.8 billion a year and there is no doubt that would be significantly less if did more to support more people to recover. What we currently spend on services is not always spent in the right place. For instance, nearly 20% of the whole NHS mental health budget is spent on secure care, driven by an obsession with risk, when some of those resources could be better spent on improving community support.
While it may take years for better medication to be developed, the drugs we do have could be used more effectively if they were prescribed properly. If health professionals knew more about how mental illness puts your physical health at risk and carried out extra basic monitoring, such as blood pressure checks, they could cut the number of people with schizophrenia dying from preventable physical illness. There are services across the country showing the way on what can be done, but they need to become the norm in every part of the country.
Part of the problem is that it’s easy to think; this doesn’t affect me. Mental illness and schizophrenia in particular is something we often think happens to other people. To different people, not people like us. That’s how one of the members of my charity, Rethink Mental Illness , told me recently she had always felt about schizophrenia. With no history of mental illness in the family and a bright, popular son at university, she had no reason to think schizophrenia would ever play a part in her life or that the poor standards of care would ever impact on her family. That was until Christmas 1996, when her son woke up one morning, convinced she was dead. He was suffering from an acute psychotic episode and has needed support and care ever since.
Schizophrenia and psychosis can affect anyone, from any background at any age. Over 220,000 people in England have a diagnosis of schizophrenia and many more thousands care for someone who does. Schizophrenia is everybody’s business and we all have a duty to stand up and say – this isn’t good enough.