Tag: policy

Mental health policy, services and nursing in Wales

The COVID-19 pandemic has drawn attention to the existence of devolved government in the UK. Here in Wales we’re used to hearing from Mark Drakeford, but my guess is that it’s only in recent months that most people in other parts of the UK will have become actively aware of his role as First Minister, and indeed the authority held by the Welsh Government to create policy and to legislate. For a helpful discussion on all things Wales and COVID-related, here’s a link to an episode of The Bunker podcast on the same.

In a Wales-themed episode of #mhTV held in October 2020 I joined a discussion panel alongside Hazel Powell (Nursing Officer for Mental Health and Learning Disability in the Chief Nursing Officer’s team) and Michelle Forkings (Associate Director of Nursing/Divisional Nurse for Mental Health and Learning Disability in Aneurin Bevan University Health Board) to talk about policy, power and mental health health nursing. Here’s a link:

Observations from a small country

IMGP3076Here are two digital mementos from my trip to Australia: a photograph of a humpback whale (which breached and swam under the boat I was on for a good 45 minutes), and – more pertinently, perhaps, given the usual subject matter of this blog – the slides I used in my keynote talk at #ACMHN2018. This was the conference of the Australian College of Mental Health Nurses, held in Cairns in October 2018, and from which I have now returned home. My talk was all about mental health policy, services and nursing in Wales: which means this may actually be the only time I ever get to write about both ‘Wales’ and ‘whales’ in the same post.

Here are the slides, the material for which I’m also aiming write up as a paper:


Prospects and challenges: revisited

In 1999 I wrote a paper for the journal Health and Social Care in the Community titled Joint working in community mental health: prospects and challenges. The back story is that the work for this article was mostly done during my first year of part-time study for an MA in Health and Social Policy, during my time working as a community mental health nurse in East London.

Frustratingly, I can’t find my original wordprocessed copy of this paper from which to create a green open access version for uploading to the Orca repository and for embedding a link to here. But not to worry. The abstract, at least, is a freebie:

This paper reviews the opportunities for, and the challenges facing, joint working in the provision of community mental health care. At a strategic level the organization of contemporary mental health services is marked by fragmentation, competing priorities, arbitrary divisions of responsibility, inconsistent policy, unpooled resources and unshared boundaries. At the level of localities and teams, these barriers to effective and efficient joint working reverberate within multi-disciplinary and multi-agency community mental health teams (CMHTs). To meet this challenge, CMHT operational policies need to include multiagency agreement on: professional roles and responsibilities; target client groups; eligibility criteria for access to services; client pathways to and from care; unified systems of case management; documentation and use of information technology; and management and accountability arrangements. At the level of practitioners, community mental health care is provided by professional groups who may have limited mutual understanding of differing values, education, roles and responsibilities. The prospect of overcoming these barriers in multidisciplinary CMHTs is afforded by increased opportunities for interprofessional ‘seepage’ and a sharing of complementary perspectives, and for joint education and training. This review suggests that policy-driven solutions to the challenges facing integrated community mental health care may be needed and concludes with an overview of the prospects for change contained in the previous UK government’s Green Paper, ‘Developing Partnerships in Mental Health’.

Fifteen years on the structural divisions remain. As with other areas, community mental health care continues to be funded and provided by a multiplicity of agencies, with ‘health care’ and ‘social care’ distinctions still very much in place. This year’s Report of the Independent Commission on Whole Person Care for the Labour Party and the King’s Fund’s work on integrated care are examples of recent initiatives aimed at closing these gaps. Labour’s Independent Commission recommends the creation of a new national body, Care England, bringing together NHS and local authority representatives at the highest level. Note, of course, that these proposals are for England only: these are ideas for health and social care in one part of a devolved UK.

In my article I drew attention to the problem of competing policies and priorities for NHS and local authority organisations, the lack of shared organisational boundaries, non-integrated information technology systems and separate pathways bringing service users into, through and out of the system. An illustrative example I gave was the parallel introduction, in the early 1990s, of the care programme approach (CPA) and care management. Here in Wales, with the introduction of the Mental Health (Wales) Measure there is now, at least, a single care and treatment plan (CTP) to be used with all people using secondary mental health services. But how many health and social care organisations in Wales and beyond have managed to integrate their information systems? This, I suspect, remains an idea for the future.

And then there are the distinctions, and the relationships, between the various occupational groups involved in community mental health care. In my Joint working paper I emphasised the differences in values, education and practice between (for example) nurses and social workers, and (perhaps rather glibly) suggested that the route to better interprofessional practice lay through clearer operational policies at team level. Getting mental health professionals to work differently together became, for a time at least, something of a policymakers’ priority in the years following my article’s appearance. Here I’m thinking of the idea of distributed responsibility, and ‘new ways of working’ more generally, of which more can be found in this post and in this analysis of recent mental health policy trends (for green open access papers associated with both these earlier posts, follow this link and this link).

Two other things strike me when I look back on this 1999 article and reflect on events in the time elapsing. First is how much I underemphasised, then, the importance and influence of the service user movement. Over 15 years much looks to have been gained on this front, and I detect improved opportunities now for people using services to be involved in decisions about their care. Services have oriented to the idea of promoting recovery, as opposed to responding solely to people’s difficulties and deficits. This all takes me neatly to COCAPP and Plan4Recovery, two current studies in which I am involved which are investigating these very things in everyday practice. Second, I realise how little I foresaw in the late 1990s the changes then about to happen in the organisation of community mental health teams. Not long after my paper appeared crisis resolution, early intervention, assertive outreach and primary care mental health teams sprung into being across large parts of the country. More recent evidence suggests a rolling back of some of these developments in a new era of austerity.

And what of the community mental health system’s opportunities and challenges for the fifteen years which lie ahead? Perhaps there’s space here for an informed, speculative, paper picking up on some of the threads identified in my Joint working piece and in this revisiting blog. But that’s for another day.

Closing the Gap?

Earlier this week, over the border in England Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg put his name to a new policy document titled Closing the Gap: Priorities for essential change in mental health. The foreword to this includes the line that ‘Mental health is moving up the policy agenda across government’. This is a welcome assertion. It is also one which deserves to be examined alongside evidence of recent cuts in funding and retractions in services at a time of rising demand (see here and here for my earlier posts on mental health in an era of austerity).

This is a document listing 25 areas for change in four areas: increasing access to mental health services; integrating physical and mental health care; starting early to promote mental wellbeing and prevent mental health problems; and improving the quality of life of people with mental health problems. It closes with the maxim that mental health is everybody’s business. Initial coverage in The Guardian included a fairly straightforward description of the document’s content, and particularly its promise of increased choice for people using services and the introduction of waiting time targets. In The Independent, Paul Jenkins (from the organisation Rethink Mental Illness) was more searching, contrasting Closing the Gap‘s aspiration with what we know about frontline services:

[…] historically, mental health has always had a raw deal when it comes to NHS spending and accounts for 22% of illness in this country, but only gets 11% of the NHS budget. On top of this, over the last two years, we’ve seen a 2% cut in mental health spending despite increasing demand. Services which were already struggling are being squeezed even further. So how can the Government now make real inroads into significantly improving care and introducing choice when the services simply aren’t there? People are waiting months, even years for treatment.

If politicians really want to improve the lives of people with mental illness, we need to see investment in mental health services – in the very least services should not be cut. We should also be making sure that people who are too ill to work are properly supported with the benefits there are entitled to and with services that respond when and where they are needed. And when we see an action plan, it needs to set out specific commitments on how things are going to change and by when.

Well said. Personally I am minded to think, again, about the mental health field’s wicked problems, and how large-scale policy always contains just one version of what a system’s most pressing challenges (and their solutions) might be. Closing the Gap has plenty to say on what ought to be happening at local level (better preparation of commissioners of mental health services, more mental health training for primary care workers, more psychological therapies, and so on). What it does not unequivocally say is that ‘the problem’ may also be one of underfunding relative to levels of need.

I am also reminded of how local service change in response to national policy can lead to unintended consequences (something I have written about at length here). Here’s a speculative example to illustrate this point. Typically, mental health teams have responsibilities to respond in timely fashion to new requests for help (from colleagues in primary care, for example) whilst simultaneously providing care to people already using their services. Who knows, then, what the wider system effects might be when waiting limits for mental health services are introduced next year, as Closing the Gap promises they will? At local level, will redoubled efforts to respond to new referrals mean that the delivery of ongoing care and treatment will suffer? Will NHS organisations be tempted to establish new types of service specifically to reduce waiting times? If so, how will these find their feet in systems which are already organisationally complex? None of this is to say, of course, that waiting periods are problems which do not deserve to be tackled, but it is to say that actions to address perceived deficiencies always reverberate.

Disinvesting in mental health?

National Survey of Investment 2011-12Writing for The Guardian’s Healthcare Professionals Network this week, David Brindle reports that spending on mental health care in England has fallen for the second year in a row. He references unpublished figures disclosed last week to the House of Commons Health Committee, along with the 2011-12 National Survey of Investment in Adult Mental Health Services which appeared last August, and from which I have clipped these first two headline findings:

National Survey of Investment 2011-12b

The key figure here is the bit I have circled in red: that, in real terms, investment in mental health services in England in 2011-12 reduced by 1%. Last summer The Guardian reported the publication of this finding under the banner of mental health spending having fallen for the first time in 10 years, and if I am understanding David Brindle’s latest article correctly evidence of further cuts has been gathered since. Elsewhere in this piece Dr Hugh Griffiths, the Department of Health’s National Clinical Director for Mental Health, is quoted as having told the Health Committee last week of being ‘disturbed’ by reports of cutbacks to services in some English regions.

Meanwhile, via this piece in The Telegraph I see that the former coalition government Care Minister and LibDem MP Paul Burstow is heading up an independent Mental Health Commission with the liberal think-tank CentreForum. The Commission’s task is to ‘examine the state of mental health care provision in England’. This is a task made all the more urgent in the light of the finding, also contained in last August’s National Survey, of a £29.3 million reduction in investment in crisis resolution, assertive outreach and early intervention services.

All this paints a very bleak picture indeed. Reductions in funding and in services threaten to roll back the investments made in dedicated mental health care in the years following the publication, in England in 1999, of the National Service Framework for Mental Health. New Labour acted at tremendous speed in prioritising the mental health field. When in government Labour took action to develop community care through the creation of new types of services. It changed the law, put resources into improving access to psychological therapies and rewrote professional role boundaries. Some of the specifics were contentious, sure, but I for one did not doubt that the challenges of improving mental health and developing services were finally being taken seriously. In fact, Michael Coffey and I wrote about this period of policymaking in our wicked problems paper (which can be downloaded here). In this we urged careful consideration of the cumulative impact of policy actions, and the perils of trying to change everything in a complex system of health and social care all at the same time. But needless to say we made no case for cuts, which is what is evidently taking place around large parts of the country now.

As it happens, I can’t immediately find a Welsh equivalent for the Department of Health’s National Survey for England. If it’s out there, perhaps someone can point me in the right direction? It would be good to know the trends for investment in mental health services here in Wales. More generally, now I come to think of it, I want to learn more of the prospects for the future of the mental health system in this part of the UK now that the Welsh Government has a new Health Minister in Professor Mark Drakeford. The Minister is a Cardiff University Professor of Social Policy and Applied Social Sciences, and it will be interesting to see how future policy and services shape up under his direction.

The Mental Health (Wales) Measure 2010

This is important, if you happen to use (and/or work in) mental health services in Wales. The Mental Health (Wales) Measure 2010 sets out to drive up standards across a number of areas: mental health in primary care; care coordination and care and treatment planning; the assessment of people who have previously used mental health services; and independent advocacy.

For ‘Measure’ read ‘law’, because that’s exactly what it is. I applaud the Welsh Government’s commitment to improving services, though I’d love to know more about the politics behind the decision to attempt this through the use of statute. What we now need is high-quality, independent, research to find out what impact (intended and unintended, helpful and unhelpful) the Measure is having.

Some opening thoughts (2)

Yesterday I opened this blog with a reference to a paper Michael Coffey and I published in 2011. I briefly talked about ‘wicked problems’, linking back to Rittel and Webber’s original article introducing this term.

In our paper Michael and I commented on the pace of change in mental health policy and services across the UK. We were particularly interested in the years from 1997, beginning with the election of New Labour. At the start of this period there were some bold statements from members of the then-new government, including the claim that community care had ‘failed’. At the time I thought this to be far too bald and simplistic a formulation of ‘the problem’. I still do, as it happens. As a solution, more (and different types of) community mental health care became the policy prescription. It was in this context that assertive outreach teams and crisis resolution and home treatment services appeared.

What struck Michael and me was how quickly this problem/solution formulation yielded to a replacement, this time emphasising shortcomings in professional practice. Policy pronouncements in the early/mid 2000s referenced occupational boundaries as a problem. Now, eroding demarcation became a key goal of policy: and it is in this context that new ways of working emerged. This was all about redrawing divisions of labour, and I’m sure this is something I’ll return to in the future because it interests me very much.

Some opening thoughts (1)

So, what to say in a first post? Perhaps introduce some of the ideas I’ve had the opportunity to work up in more detail in recent articles.

As a starting observation I’ve come to think of the whole business of organising and providing health (and social) care as being exceptionally complex. Hardly a novel insight, but worth pausing over awhile. Think of the problems which face policymakers and to which policy action might be directed. These do not arrive ready-packaged, but have to be named, identified and argued about. Values and politics come into play, and ‘the evidence’ for policy is likely to be incomplete and open to challenge. Problems and their solutions are also inseparable. So if ‘the problem’ facing health systems is defined as one of bloated public services inefficiency, then ‘the solution’ might be to inject some competition using market mechanisms. Readers familiar with contemporary NHS policy in England will recognise this problem/solution combo. I also recognise it from the time I worked as a community mental health nurse in east London in the early to mid-1990s. That was the era of the purchaser/provider split, and of quasi-markets. As it happens, I reject this particular inefficiency/marketisation problem/solution formulation. So just as I said above: any combo is open to contest and challenge.

This kind of thinking can be pushed a little further. For any given problem/solution combination, how might we know actions have ‘worked’? What, indeed, does it mean for a large-scale policy to ‘work’ at all given that actions and innovations which improve things in one locality might have very different effects elsewhere? And what about the unintended consequences of policy and service change? Or that realising grand aspirations often requires lots of agencies, organisations and people all having to pull together at the same time?

These are some of the reasons why many of the problems facing people who make health policy and develop services are of the ‘wicked’ variety, to use the memorable term coined by US academics Rittel and Webber in 1973. In 2011 my friend Michael Coffey (who works at Swansea University) and I published this paper in the journal Health Policy in which we employed a ‘wicked issues’ perspective to consider recent policy and service change across the UK’s system of mental health care.

In this paper Michael and I argued that different problem/solution combos have been wheeled out over the last 15 or so years, and that distinct (but overlapping) policy formulation phases can be discerned. And what did we say these phases were? I’ll blog some more on this at a later point, and see if I can create a link to an ‘author accepted manuscript’ version on Cardiff University’s ORCA repository.