Break your arm or leg or have a heart attack and you get sent to Accident & Emergency. The NHS target is to see everyone within four hours, and while a few people fall foul of that, most don’t.
Yet if you develop a mental health condition and need talking therapy, the stats show in some cases it can be over a year before you get your first appointment. Even the relatively recent mental health waiting guidelines suggest it’s four weeks to three months.
I had a breakfast meet-up with my old colleague, BBC Health Editor Hugh Pym, last week. It happened to be Mental Health Awareness Week, so this subject was firmly on both our minds and came up a lot. I’ve been mulling this over and wanted to quickly note down some thoughts.
PS: Last week we also updated and redid the MSE mental health and debt guide 2015. The guide is something I’m proud of the site for, as it attempts to treat mental health as another financial journey to be navigated, rather than a ghettoised issue.
Mental health problems and debt problems have a symbiotic relationship
Our poll results show that those with mental health problems are six times more likely to have a debt crisis than everybody else. Mental health issues can put people into debt, and debts can be the catalyst for mental health issues.
It’s worth examining this in the context of treatment waiting times.
If you break your leg or get physically ill, life can be very difficult. Prolonged absences from work, loss of income and the cost of medical treatment can cause knock-on effects even when you get better, but at least there we focus on speed of treatment.
The financial impact of mental health problems can surpass those of physical health issues
With mental health issues – as well as sometimes causing the inability to work, similar to physical health issues – many find themselves temporarily incapable of dealing with their finances.
They could be unable to face opening a letter due to anxiety or depression, unable to cope with bank statements, or fearful of answering the phone in case people call demanding cash.
It doesn’t stop there, though. There’s also the reverse, where some mental health conditions may exacerbate or cause debts. A typical example is bipolar disorder driving uncontrolled spending sprees, with people unable to control their impulse. Alternatively, those suffering from clinical depression may use spending as a temporary crutch.
Self-evidently, the longer we leave people before they’re helped, the more disruption and damage to their finances. I’ve heard too many cases where finances are so irrevocably damaged that the situation may be an unrecoverable.
This is a societal problem as well as an individual one
A recent OECD study estimated the cost to the UK at £70 billion a year. That makes it a key infrastructure issue for our economy (even if you ignore the obvious lack of wellbeing it causes).
We have thankfully heard from the Government about an aspiration towards parity of treatment between mental health and physical health. For that we need many more counsellors, improved access and speed of treatments such as talking therapies.
Of course it is very difficult to exactly equate the severity of different conditions. And just like physical conditions, there are some mental health conditions that don’t need to be treated with such urgency. Yet overall I’d be surprised if there weren’t some causality here.
I’d love to know your thoughts and opinions on this. The more we talk about and normalise mental health conditions, the better.