Fall in mental health spending ‘increasing pressure’ on social work teams

Government funding for mental health services falls for first time in ten years. Social workers warn that drop could represent "tip of the iceberg"

Government spending on mental health services has fallen in real terms for the first time in a decade, research for the Department of Health has revealed.

The national survey of mental health investment found that, accounting for inflation, spending on services for working age adults fell by 1% in 2011/12 to £6.62 billion. It is the first time spending has fallen since 2001/02.

Spending in two of three “priority service areas” for mental health fell. Assertive outreach investment dropped by 8.5% and spending on crisis resolution/home treatment fell by 4.3%. In contrast, early intervention received a 5% spending boost.

Social workers warned that disinvestment in mental health services at a time of “growing demand” for support was placing frontline staff under “increasing pressure”.

Already stretched social work teams faced rising case loads and an increasing turnover of cases, the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) said. Cuts had also seen some local authorities restrict social workers to supporting clients with “critical and substantial” needs, placing workers’ mental health under strain.

Joe Godden, professional officer at BASW, said:

“The demands of working with only those in high level need puts emotional pressures on social workers and also usually leads to an increase in bureaucracy as the whole system of allocation of resources is constantly subject to greater management control.”

Ruth Allen, chair of the mental health faculty at the College of Social Work, said social workers reported “increased difficulty” in securing resources from health and social care budgets. The fall in mental health spending was “compounded” by cuts in other areas that contribute to service users’ wellbeing, she said.

“In a sense this is just the tip of the iceberg of the challenge facing service users, their families and social workers,” she said.

Allen said that a fall in investment threatened to worsen “an ongoing issue” with the quality of mental health inpatient services.

“Obviously we all want to see better community care services and admissions fall. But there needs to be sufficient access to inpatient services so that social workers working as approved mental health professionals can do their jobs properly,” she said.

A breakdown of investment by service area revealed that employment and day centres suffered most disinvestment in 2011/12, with spending down 16% compared to the previous year. Other areas that saw spending fall include access and crisis services (-3%), home support (-5.3%) and support services (-9.1%).

Personality disorder services saw the biggest rise in investment, with spending increasing by 22.6% compared to 2010/11. Funding for psychological therapy services (+6%) and direct payments (+3.5%) were also boosted.

A Department of Health spokesperson said:

“Investment in psychological therapy has doubled over the last three years from £197 million to £386 million and continues to rise. This is allowing people to access psychological therapies earlier, which is driving up standards in care, reducing hospital admissions and delivering long-term savings.”
“However, we know we need to continue to improve the commissioning of mental health services. That’s why we recently set out how organisations can make best use of the levers and powers available to them, to improve the mental health and wellbeing of local people in the most effective way.”

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