Concerns at closure of mental health policy body

The government’s decision to scrap its main mental health agency has sparked concern in the sector that support to improve services will be withdrawn.

The National Mental Health Development Unit, which helps to implement mental health policy, will be wound up on 31 March with no plans for a successor organisation. This is despite the fact that the government is due to publish a mental health strategy this month.

Its abolition could create a vacuum, warned Steve Shrubb, director of the NHS Confederation’s Mental Health Network.

“It raises the issue of how you support organisations to improve their services,” he said. “There’s a level of concern that there will be a vacuum. The best organisations and the best partnerships are always going to do well, but we know that not everybody is at the same level.

Similar concerns were expressed by Mind chief executive Paul Farmer. “It is important that in future there is the capacity for policy development and implementation of the new mental health strategy, which we are expecting soon,” he said.

The Department of Health took the decision to axe the unit at the same time as the cull of quangos last October. But, because the unit is not a quango, the news was not widely circulated.

The unit commissions and provides expertise in priority areas and disseminates research evidence. Programmes it delivers include Improving Access to Psychological Therapies, a high-profile scheme to widen access to talking therapies for people with common mental health problems.

The unit replaced the National Institute for Mental Health in England (Nihme) in April 2009. Nihme, formed in 2002, had supported the implementation of the National Service Framework for Mental Health.

“Even the most cynical individual would acknowledge the contribution that Nihme and the NMHDU have made in mental health and there’s an anxiety over who will provide support,” said Shrubb.

Farmer said the unit’s work had been vital in terms of translating policy into practice.

“The momentum of some aspects of current NMHDU work needs to be sustained, as the mental health community seeks to further improve the experience of service users,” he said.

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