Social care cuts threaten mental health strategy success

Government mental health plan has "laudable" aims but fails to confront the economic realities facing social care staff and services, experts warn

Cuts to services and a lack of investment in social care staff threaten to undermine delivery of the government’s mental health strategy, social work leaders have warned.

The British Association of Social Workers and The College of Social Work backed the “laudable” aims of the government’s mental health implementation framework. But both bodies warned that the plan fails to confront the economic realities facing frontline staff and services.

The framework outlines a roadmap for how local authorities, the NHS and other providers can deliver the national mental health strategy, including a pledge to give mental health care “parity” with physical health. 

The plan contains recommendations for actions that providers “can do” to deliver the mental health strategy. But the framework contains no binding commitments for changes, sparking criticism from social work academics that it “won’t have much bite”.

The report, published this week, recommends that social services departments focus support on “early intervention, service integration, personalisation and recovery.” Directors of social services could consider “reviewing eligibility criteria” for social care to deliver more preventative work, the report states.

Faye Wilson, chair of BASW’s mental health reference group, said there is “lots of good stuff” in the implementation plan. But she warned that the “climate it will be delivered in” threatened its success.

“It says intervene early, intervene with communities, and intervene with children. That’s laudable and absolutely right. But with no additional resources? Amid all the cuts, how do you balance early intervention while still intervening at the top end?” she said.

“The mental health strategy is good. The implementation plan is good. The question in the current climate is – what teeth will it have?”

Dr Ruth Allen, chair of The College of Social Work’s mental health faculty, welcomed the implementation framework’s “strong focus” on mental health as a human rights issue.

“Social work is a human rights based profession so to see that alignment in this policy is good,” she said.

But Allen admitted that the framework “doesn’t seem to wrestle much with the implementation issues at a time of austerity”.

“There needs to be investment in social work staff so that they can do that preventative work. They probably need some different skills, so there is a professional development aspect to this too,” she said.

Social work academic Martin Webber criticised the implementation plan for “not going far enough”. He said the document was “quite tame” and “singlarly fails to address” the threat to integration in mental health social care posed by local authorities pulling social workers out of NHS trusts

 “It says that local authorities have a strong role in integrating care, but they are busy pulling back their social workers to focus on personalisation and safeguarding and other core Local Authority tasks,” he said.

Launching the implementation framework, care services minister Paul Burstow said:

“If we are to improve the nation’s wellbeing organisations from across society need to act as catalysts for change in their communities. This framework provides the practical guidance to help make this happen and I am delighted with the support it has from across the mental health sector who have worked so hard on producing this with us.”

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