I congratulate my hon. Friend Ms Abbott on obtaining the debate. It is a pleasure to follow Dr Offord and I am delighted that he had such a profitable morning at the Whittington hospital in my constituency. The ambulatory care centre is indeed excellent. It was a product of a community and all-party campaign to defend the A and E department some years ago. We won that campaign, and as a result we have a thriving A and E department and a new and very efficient ambulatory care centre. I attended its opening with colleagues. It is a great place and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman was well treated there. I hope he will write and tell the hospital so.
The point that the hon. Gentleman raised on policing, on which I intervened, is serious. I make no general criticism of the police force as a whole, but I do think that when the police are called to an incident in a shopping centre, or in the street or elsewhere, they need to be well aware that some of the people there may be suffering from a mental crisis, may be mental health patients, and need to be treated with some degree of care and understanding. Many police officers are very understanding and very careful about that; I am not trying to make any general criticism. I just think we need to send a gentle message to the Metropolitan police that within training, there should be as much awareness as possible of the mental health conditions that exist within the community.
We have moved on a long way in debates on mental health in this House during the time that I have been here. When I was first elected, a person with a mental health condition was not allowed to stand for Parliament. The Speaker had the power to section Members of Parliament under the Mental Health Act—may still do, for all I know. Mental illness was generally the butt of humour—of universal jokes—so that people going through a crisis, perhaps depression, felt unable to talk about it and felt it would blight their career prospects in any walk of life if they did talk about it. Consequently, only if they had the money did they seek private help and private counselling; if they did not have the money, they suffered, and might lose their job and end up with a blighted career.
All of us can go through depression; all of us can go through those experiences. Every single one of us in this Chamber knows people who have gone through it, and has visited people who have been in institutions and have fully recovered and gone back to work and continued their normal life. I dream of the day when this country becomes as accepting of these problems as some Scandinavian countries are, where one Prime Minister was given six months off in order to recover from depression, rather than being hounded out of office as would have happened on so many other occasions.
The issues that I shall raise are much the same as those raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington in opening the debate—on the disproportionate extent to which the people one finds in mental health institutions come from the black and minority ethnic communities, and the socio-economic imbalance on mental health issues. People who lead stressful lives, without housing security, without job security, without financial security, frightened about the consequences of what their children are up to or whether their children can get a job and so on, are sometimes affected by levels of stress that the rest of us would not even want to think about.
The access point to mental health services is usually the GP. That is the great thing about the national health service, although sometimes it is the problem of the national health service. A GP surgery at its best is brilliant, recognises the holistic needs of the patient and does its best to accommodate those holistic needs. The GP system at its worst is a single-handed GP who may have been there a very long time, become rather set in their ways, is not very interested in people coming to them with stress or other psychiatric-related problems, and does not refer them for any kind of therapy or counselling.
I am concerned about the length of time people wait for counselling or support. A report commissioned by the British Psychoanalytic Council and the UK Council for Psychotherapy, based on over 2,000 psychotherapists working across the NHS, the third sector and in private practice shows that in the NHS and the third sector
“57% of practitioners said client waiting times have increased over the last year, 52% report fewer psychotherapy services being commissioned in the last year, 77% report an increase in the number of complex cases they are expected to deal with.”
The report continues:
“The strain on publicly funded therapy services means that the private psychotherapy sector is increasingly ‘picking up the pieces’ with individuals who have been failed by the NHS. The vast majority of private therapists (94%) report they regularly see clients who feel let down by the NHS”.
I am absolutely not attacking the national health service. That is the last thing I want to do. I want the national health service to be there and available for all. I do not want it to so ration its services that those with fairly desperate needs are forced to suffer, seek voluntary help if they can get it or, if they can afford it, get private support.
There are excellent local organisations in my area, including iCope—Camden and Islington Psychological Therapies Service, and the Women’s Therapy Centre, which do a great deal to improve the local service and put a lot of pressure on the local health authority. An excellent report was produced by Louise Hamill and Monika Schwartz, who both work in my area and have done a great deal of work on the subject. I urge the Minister to have a look at that report and at the very serious proposals that they put forward.
The network for mental health did a survey which identified the 10 most important issues relating to mental health treatment. I will not list them all, but the most important seems to me to be access to timely and appropriate treatment. If someone going through a mental health crisis or depression cannot get seen by somebody, they become more and more agitated and stressful. If we have target times for cancer treatment, we ought to have target times for being seen and getting the necessary support at times of mental stress. Likewise, reducing stigma and discrimination is important, as is looking at the effects of benefit and welfare system reforms.
I have had far too many anecdotal reports from constituents and others who go for a Department for Work and Pensions availability for work test. If they have a physical disability, it is usually fairly obvious and it can be quantified and, we hope, taken into account in how the interview and test are conducted. If somebody has a mental health condition, it is not so obvious and cannot be so easily quantified. There are far too many cases where the stress levels are unbelievable for people who have been forced into these tests. Their condition has not been taken into account, they have been declared fit for work, and they then go into a crisis of stress because they feel they simply cannot cope. It is place where we could all be, and we should have some respect for people in that situation and do our best as a society to help them get through it.
That leads me on to education and publicity and how these issues are dealt with. The media have got somewhat better. It is now not routine for TV and radio comedians always to make jokes about people being stressed out, mad, depressed and so on. Things have moved on a bit and I pay tribute to colleagues in all parts of the House who have stood up in the Chamber during the annual mental health debate and said exactly that about ending discrimination.