‘We need to plan now for a full roll-out of talking therapy sites’

The new chief executive of Mind tells Simeon Brody that he wants to strengthen the user movement’s influence on national policy

Paul Farmer, the former director of public affairs at Rethink, has no doubts about his move to fellow mental health charity Mind, where he has just taken over as chief executive.

“Rethink is a terrific organisation to work for but a job like the chief executive of Mind doesn’t come along very often,” he says.

Farmer is best known for his role as chair of the Mental Health Alliance, a coalition of 77 organisations set up in 1999 to campaign against earlier incarnations of the draft Mental Health Bill.

But it seems likely that the alliance will have to face future challenges without Farmer at its helm. He says he is considering his position as alliance chair, given his new responsibilities at Mind, and “the likelihood is I may well step down”.

Farmer says the alliance has been an effective campaigner. “The fact that the government rode back from going through with the draft bill, which we criticised so strongly, is a reflection of our effectiveness and our impact,” he says.

The government now intends to amend the Mental Health Act 1983 instead and the alliance has further battles ahead, scrutinising amendments which, says Farmer, “seem to be being created at great speed”, as well as setting out its own manifesto for change and tabling its own amendments.

The proposed legislation, while seeming to dominate the public agenda, is only one of several issues shaping the mental health scene.

Farmer says the talking therapy demonstration sites in Doncaster and Newham, east London, announced by the government could be a key component of the future of mental health care.

“Whenever we’ve asked our service users what’s the treatment they would most like to receive, it’s some kind of talking treatment,” he says. “Whenever you ask them what’s the hardest treatment to access, it’s the talking treatments.”

But he argues that, by definition, demonstration sites should show how treatment should be delivered elsewhere, and are not there to test whether it should be done at all.

“Demonstration sites are helpful in order to understand the way to do it but we need to be planning ahead for a full roll-out of these. I don’t think we should be waiting for the results of the demonstration sites.”

Farmer will also have to address the funding problems facing mental health services.

Last month, the Department of Health challenged claims of a funding crisis by reporting that only 11 of 84 mental health trusts had made cuts last year – less than 2 per cent of the total mental health budget.

But Farmer points out that, if you live in an area that is facing cuts such as Hertfordshire it is not much consolation that you are in one of only 11 areas in a similar position. And he says the full picture is only beginning to emerge as this year’s funding settlements are made.

Farmer joins Mind at an important time for the charity, in the year it celebrates its 60th birthday. Doubtless he will be drawing on his communication skills, which he honed as a press officer for the Samaritans before becoming the charity’s head of communications.

The focus of Mind’s celebrations is on strengthening the voice of the service user and Farmer naturally sees this as one of his main priorities. He suggests Mind has become renowned for its user involvement, with two-thirds of its trustees having experienced mental distress.

But he says many people now feel it must go further and, over the next year, Mind intends to strengthen the user voice in the policy field, and the user movement in general.

Farmer also aims to ensure Mind’s network of 200 local associations are fit for the 21st century and help the organisation reach out to more people. It seems unlikely Farmer will want for issues to tackle and he points out: “I don’t think my job is going to be dull.”

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