The importance of compassion in mental healthcare

The Government’s benefit reforms suggest people with mental health problems are ‘less than’ those with physical health problems. It’s dangerously misguided, writes Andrew Molodynski

Location: UK
Published: Friday 10 May 2024
mental health beds

This mental health awareness week has come very soon after the Government announcement that it will try to make it harder for people with mental health problems to claim benefits.

The BMA, like so many other organisations, has been clear this policy proposal is as inefficient as it is cruel. For me, it is a reminder of how important it is that we discuss and provide mental healthcare with compassion for those who are affected and for their families. It is fundamentally important that we as individuals and as a society do not lose our sense of care for the welfare of others in these difficult times of increased poverty and inequality.

Several patients and family members approached me in distress after that Government announcement, terrified that they would lose their entitlement to the benefits that are a crucial safety net for them.

I tried to reassure them that hopefully things won’t in reality change much, and if there are issues we will do our level best to help them through it. However, the changes undoubtedly demean, diminish, and denigrate people with mental health problems and perpetuate the myth that they are in some way ‘less than’ people with physical health problems.

My 25 years as a psychiatrist have left me in no doubt at all that people with mental health problems are not ‘less than’ others. Indeed I have repeatedly been struck by the courage, strength, and compassion of the people that I see and that of their families. Many have survived upbringings, illnesses, and events that I know would have brought me down. The fact that they have ongoing symptoms and ongoing needs is in no way a reflection upon them.

We don’t blame or penalise people with long-term physical health problems in the same way.

Related to this dismissive and denigrating attitude is the deterioration in the ability of mental health services to respond to the need in our population. The doctors the BMA spoke to last year as part of a major research project about mental healthcare in England described the system as ‘broken’.

Austerity is largely to blame. While many more people are coming forward for help with their mental health, services to respond to that need have grown at a much slower rate. Whilst additional investment in recent years is welcome, this has not kept pace with the huge increase in numbers of people coming forward for diagnosis, treatment and support with a variety of conditions.

We are struggling materially in terms of funding and staff. We are struggling in terms of expertise as staff leave the NHS in search of better pay and conditions. We are struggling in terms of emotional strength and energy, as years of underfunded and understaffed services take their toll on morale. We are working in crumbling mental health units and community centres, and are forced to rely on an outdated and frankly discriminatory Mental Health Act.

The Government promised reform but there are no signs they plan to keep that promise.

I hope this mental health awareness week can serve as a reminder to all that in the difficult situation we are in, it is more important than ever to keep central in our minds that the individuals we are trying to support are just ordinary human beings like you and me who have had difficult times and who are in distress.

They need care, support, and people alongside them to help them move forwards. They do not need unnecessary fear and intimidation as to where their financial stability will come from, or how they will cope if it is taken away.

We can do better than this as a society. It is time for renewal, and for people with mental health problems and the people that treat and support them to get the respect they deserve.

Andrew Molodynski is a consultant psychiatrist at Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust and mental health lead on the BMA consultants committee