I wrote the following article for
the House Magazine, which produced a special supplement to mark the 60th anniversary of
I cannot claim to have 60 years of experience of NHS mental health
services but my first encounter was in the 1950s, so not too far off! Visiting my father in Hollymoor, one of the large
asylums for psychiatric patients on the outskirts of Birmingham, was very daunting for a
young child. I remember the long wide
corridors and strange people shuffling along but I liked the large, well-kept gardens,
where we sometimes met my father at work. Little
seemed to change over the next 20 years though there was the introduction of music therapy
where my father used to play his clarinet.
The visits to Hollymoor and the neighbouring hospital, Rubery Hill
(well known to locals as the loonie bin) usually took place after a traumatic
period for the whole family culminating in my father being sectioned I
remember the word but had no idea what it meant! Another
strange expression was ECT and I recall conversations about the improvement now that
anaesthetics were used and my father describing how, when he first received this (electric
shock) treatment, he was strapped down on the stretcher and was fully aware of his
My overwhelming opinion of mental health services was that they cut
in at a crisis and, in between, usually when my father was in his depressive phase, the
general attitude was out of sight, out of mind.
This could never be the case for us as a family, of course, but I did not
share my feelings outside the home because I felt ashamed.
It was difficult to explain to friends why my Dad didnt go out to work
and sometimes behaved rather weirdly. He often
felt that people were talking about him and would say that he was the only one who was
really sane. Another symptom was the complaint
that his head didnt belong to him and he would sit with his trousers rolled up
rubbing his legs as if checking he was all in one piece.
He was very demanding of my mother, who only kept her own sanity by going
out to work. When she had a day off, to get
some time to herself, she would have to set off as if going to work. It has been easier to talk about these things since
my father died.
Once I became an elected representative, first as a local councillor,
my experience of mental health issues expanded beyond that of my own family. This has been mainly through contact with relatives
or neighbours of patients, troubled by the effects of similarly poor services and the lack
of co-operation between health and local authority housing and social services
departments. Contact from people who recognise
they have a mental health condition is less frequent which, in itself testifies to the
stigma associated with mental illness. People
with other medical conditions dont hesitate to contact their MP when dissatisfied
with the NHS! We will know we have made
progress when the same can be said for users of mental health services. Thus I was absolutely delighted when it was
proposed that the brand new psychiatric hospital to replace Rubery and Hollymoor was going
to be located on the same site as the normal hospital.
Expecting mental health services to be more like other health
services seemed a good idea until I visited the new hospital. I was shocked.
Gone was the light and space provided by our Victorian forbears and the
concept of asylum. Utility, rather than
therapy, was the order of the day. The
building, with its narrow corridors and cramped wards soon became known as the pizza hut. Though we had new investment, mental health
services remained the Cinderella of services and the emphasis was on reducing
in-patient beds and care in the community.
Soon it became clear that expecting to reduce costs by such measures was
counter-productive and, towards the end of the last Conservative Government, the talk was
of a need to provide a co-ordinated spectrum of services.
However, it took the incoming Labour Government to significantly increase
resources to enable this idea to begin to become a reality.
As the expiry of the first 10 year National Service Framework
approaches, the improvements are palpable. The
World Health Organisation has judged the UKs mental health services to be better
funded, structured and supported than anywhere in Europe nevertheless, when NHS
Trusts face financial difficulty, it still seems that mental health services are the first
to be trimmed.
The priority now being given to the role of patients and carers in
the development of mental health services and to introducing a choice of therapies is
particularly heartening. Extra money was made
available for psychological therapies largely as a result of sound economic arguments. The latest big idea is social inclusion
and getting people in to work but this could backfire if inappropriate pressure is placed
on people as soon as they start to feel better.
The truth is we have a long way to go before we achieve mental health
services of which we can be truly proud but I can end with the good news that demolition
has just started on the pizza hut, which has been replaced with three new purpose built
hospitals. The Barberry, the Oleaster and the
Zinnia Centre have names derived from traditional medicine, heralding a new holistic
approach to treatment and a respectful approach to patients.
The facilities are superb!
here for further information about my policy work on mental health and to read about
my work as co-Chair on the All Party Parliamentary Group on Mental Health
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