NHS pledges £1bn to improve mental health care, but local helplines face closure due to funding cuts

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Former Health Minister Norman Lamb speaks out against local closure of helpline providing mental health support.

The NHS has recently promised that people facing a mental health crisis will be able to get effective care 24 hours a day, seven days a week as part of the biggest transformation of mental health care across the NHS. They pledge to help more than a million extra people and invest more than a billion pounds a year by 2020/21.

These changes are in response to the final report of an independent taskforce. The taskforce was critical of the state of current mental health care across the NHS. It highlighted that one in four people will experience a mental health problem in their lifetime and the cost of mental ill health to the economy, NHS and society is £105bn a year.

Investment to provide better access for people with mental health needs is welcome, but it is worrying that local helplines providing support are facing closure. Norwich Mind helpline takes 1,000 calls a week, and is designed to be available when other services are not. It costs just £120,000 a year to run, but neither of Norfolk’s four Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) or the Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust (NSFT) can find the funding?

Helpline user Louise Nightingale described the news as ‘heartbreaking’. Amanda Hedley, CEO of Norwich and Central Norfolk Mind, said they were ‘extremely disappointed’ the £10,000 needed per month to fund the service could not be found.

She added: “It seems ironic that on the day of the publication of the five-year national plan for mental health and additional funding, we have been informed of this local decision. We will be trying to support the people that rely on our helpline as much as we can but it will have to close at the end of March when the funding ceases.”

North Norfolk MP and former Health Minster Norman Lamb, a campaigner for mental health services, described the latest development as ‘unacceptable’.

Mr Lamb was critical of Norfolk’s CCGs, claiming he felt they had initially scrapped funding without properly evaluating the decision and calling for them to provide the funding again. Mr Lamb also added: “How horribly ironic that this comes on the day we are told about a commitment to address the inequality suffered by people with mental health.

“This is unacceptable and it needs to be challenged. The human cost of this is incalculable and I want to know how they are going to make sure the support is there for people who currently rely on the service?”

Investment in health to provide access to mental health support on par with provision for physical health conditions is welcome news. However, Helplines Partnership is concerned that existing and effective local helpline provision is being negatively impacted by short term funding decisions, designed to balance stretched local budgets. The people of Norwich in particular, will lose access to a popular local form of support in crisis, and the local area will lose an important resource which may end up needing to be replicated later at higher cost as part of the NHS’s pledge to improve access to care. It is likely that the loss of the helpline will lead to other services running over capacity as people seek support elsewhere. The saddest implication of this decision is that some helpline service users may not have anywhere to turn to when they are at their most vulnerable. This comes at a time when the NHS has recognised that access to mental health services needs urgent transformation.

Norwich Mind have set up a petition to keep the helpline open. You can access it here

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