2011: The year in review

Mark Brown takes a look at some of the major news stories of 2011 and tries to answer the question: just what kind of year was 2011 for people with mental health difficulties?

Looking back, 2011 was a year where issues around mental health poked their head into the mainstream of public awareness, but not necessarily in the ways that we’d have hoped.

Three stories dominated mental health in 2011: the effect of cuts to public spending on services for people with mental health difficulties and other disabilities, the effect of changes to the benefits system on people with mental health difficulties and the ongoing saga of NHS reform.

The year was peppered with stories of large and small organisations cutting, realigning or ceasing to provide services. While it was NHS reform that gained most column inches, this was not the origin of most cuts to local nonmedical services. It was more often a result of greatly reduced local authority budgets. As the bodies responsible for everything from street lights to social care, the reduction of funds from the Government to local authorities meant many were looking to balance budgets by reducing their spending. The reductions to services and spending was not uniform across the country and according to think tank Demos (in their publication Coping with Cuts) the outcome of cuts depended greatly on decisions made by individual local authorities. What became clear was that many organisations that provided services and support to people with mental health difficulties were finding it very difficult to continue to provide the same level of services they had in previous years.

February 12th marked the launch of the much delayed new mental health strategy for England No health without mental health. Drawing upon strands of government thinking like localism and Big Society, the strategy focused much on prevention and early years mental health and much on the idea of choice within services. It made repeated use of the phrase ‘nothing about me without me’ and stated that the government was committed to giving people with mental health difficulties more choice and more support by making mental health a consideration of all policy. As is the way with such things, the strategy only represented guidance and included very few commitments and has been overshadowed by the wider effects of NHS reforms.

Demonstrations and listening exercises

On March 26th London saw one of the largest public demonstrations since the Stop the War demonstration of February 2003 against the invasion of Iraq. Labelled a March for the Alternative, it saw thousands coming together to protest against public sector cuts. March also saw the closure of National Mental Health Development Unit (NMHDU) as part of the government’s ‘bonfire of the quangos’ where organisations set up and funded by government were closed down or their functions absorbed into other bodies or government departments. Created to develop and share best practice in mental health, some claim that NMHDU never reached its potential for making a change in mental health but nevertheless its closure leaves a gap for an organisation working solely on developing new thinking in mental health.

Launching at the beginning of April and finishing at the end of May, the NHS listening exercise was one of the most obvious signs that proposed government reforms to the way that the National Health Service works were not as universally popular as they might have hoped. The listening exercise or ‘pause’ suspended the Health and Social Care Bill as it passed through Parliament. The basic principles of the Bill include changes to the NHS that would give groups of GPs the job of commissioning services, replacing the role occupied by Primary Care Trusts; opening up the NHS to allow private companies, charities and social enterprises to become providers of services and a greater role for local authorities in overseeing public health and other health services. At time of writing the Health Bill has still not completed its passage through Parliament and the number of professional bodies opposing it continues to grow.

May 11th saw the largest demonstration in London by disabled people in recent memory. Organised by a coalition of disability charities and supported by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), The Hardest Hit demonstration was widely seen as a protest against the combined effects of benefits changes and government cuts on the lives of disabled people. Thousands of people with disabilities marched on Parliament, while more who could not attend pledged their support online. A follow up day of action in October was less well attended in London, but saw significant numbers of demonstrators in towns and cities across the country.

May also saw the demise of a brave publishing venture partially inspired by One in Four. Uncovered magazine launched in November 2010 as a women’s lifestyle magazine with a mental health twist and achieved coverage on the radio and chat show circuit and across a range of newspapers and magazines. As a straight commercial magazine available in newsagents it did not reach the level of sales they had hoped.

On July 20th Minister for Disabled People Maria Miller formally launched the Strengthening Disabled People’s User-Led Organisations Programme, a £3 million investment over 3 years to help organisations led and run by people with disabilities, including mental health difficulties, to grow and develop (see news this issue).

The media gone too far?

The outbreaks of rioting and civil disturbance across England in August brought an eerie silence to public debate, however briefly, and showed us both the best and worst of our country. A frightening time of many, the disruption was thankfully short lived and only allowed a small pause before certain sections of the media could return to one of their favourite themes of 2011: Benefits scroungers and how to deal with them.

2011 saw an increasing amount of anxiety amongst people with mental health difficulties about the suitability of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) carried out for JobCentrePlus by contractor Atos to assess whether people were eligible for Employment Support Allowance (ESA). ESA replaced Incapacity Benefit (IB) in 2008, under the last Labour government, for all new claims and 2011 saw the migration of existing IB claims to ESA beginning in April. This was presented by some of the press as a move to weed out scroungers. The Work and Pensions Select Committee warned the government in July that it needed to improve its communications with benefits claimants and avoid using language that could be used by the press to draw up further inflammatory headlines.

This mirrored a hardening stance amongst some portions of the press toward benefits claimants in general at a time when the government is redefining benefits rules to reduce the amount paid to a variety of people across social security benefits like housing benefit, Working Families Tax Credits and Disability Living Allowance. Not without justification, many felt that sections of the press had overstepped the mark and were demonising claimants rather than reporting news.

In response, 2011 saw the growth in strength, reach and influence of bloggers, tweeters and social networkers, non-professionals using their skill and passion to make a difference. Campaigns like the Broken of Britain and many others succeeded in countering the misuse of statistics in the press and in public debate while bloggers and tweeters moved quickly to put real-life stories into the public sphere. 2011 may be seen as pivotal year when social media became a significant factor in political life.

Some winners…

In October, national mental health campaign Time to Change announced £20 million funding to continue its anti-stigma work (see news this issue). Sue Baker, chief executive of Time to Change, hinted that the next year would see a slight redefinition of Time to Change with more of an emphasis on grassroots projects. October also saw the announcement of a further funding for the National Survivor User Network (NSUN) to continue its work developing and networking grassroots user-led mental health organisations.

2011 was a year that asked just what kind of country are we? without coming to any firm conclusions. It was a year of belt tightening and budget balancing and, more than anything, a year of change. Here’s to 2012.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2011 edition of One in Four magazine

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