This week we submitted our views to the public consultation on reforming the Mental Health Act. Emma Cookson, our Senior Policy and Public Affairs Officer, outlines what we want the legislation to remember about people who are homeless experiencing mental ill health.
How many people who are homeless do you think suffer from mental ill health?
From October to December 2020 our data showed that 72% of people accessing St Mungo’s housing-related support services had a mental health support need.
The Mental Health Foundation (2015) found that depression rates are more than 10 times higher in the homeless population, and Office for National Statistics data for 2019 shows suicide rates 14 times higher than among the general population.
But all too frequently people tell us they can only access help when they reach crisis point. And then even once they receive help, they can often be disempowered and not treated with dignity and respect.
The role of complex needs and multiple layers of disadvantage – like homelessness – in people’s mental health and access to mainstream services is also completely under-acknowledged. Research carried out by St Mungo’s in 2016, for example, revealed that 68% of areas where 10 or more people sleep rough on any one night do not commission any mental health services actively targeting people sleeping rough. There has been some positive progress with the £30m in NHS funding to enable specialist homeless mental health services to be set up in some parts of the country. However, there is still plenty more to do.
It’s been two years since the Independent Review of the Mental Health Act, led by Professor Sir Simon Wessely, which recognised the need to give people more say in their own treatment; to require stronger, transparent justification for using compulsory powers; and to improve services.
It also highlighted the huge race inequality in the use of the Act: black people, for instance, are more than eight times more likely to be subjected to Community Treatment Orders than white people.
In response, the Government has now published its long-awaited White Paper on reforming the Mental Health Act and held a public consultation on it. This is a huge opportunity to reflect the needs of St Mungo’s clients and ensure that people who are homeless are not forgotten in the reforms.
Here are the main points we put forward in our submission:
- We need more focus on prevention, rather than only being able to access help once someone has reached crisis point. Many homeless people are not engaged with statutory mental health services (for reasons including a lack of trust in services and barriers in access). This lets problems escalate. Specialist homeless mental health services are an invaluable means of overcoming the inaccessibility of mainstream health services. But these teams have been subject to major funding cuts during the past decade.
- Wherever possible, successful community-based interventions are much more preferable to the situation where people are held in a secure, medicalised setting with other people who are also very unwell, with huge restrictions on their choices and freedoms, and where treatment may be administered against their will. Sometimes detention is necessary – but we want it to be a last resort.
- Housing needs are too often forgotten in both prevention and recovery from mental ill health. Homelessness is toxic to mental wellbeing. To stop a cycle of discharge, re-admittance and worsening mental health, we need more Supported Housing and Housing First which can play a big part in improving mental ill health.
- People who are homeless face significant stigma, including from ‘professionals’ in positions of responsibility. We need to make sure that there are checks and balances in place to prevent this. We also need more awareness of complex needs amongst mental health professionals to understand the complexities of being homeless with mental health needs.
- Many people who are homeless with mental ill health have complex trauma. It’s crucial that detention – and other responses to mental ill health — do not re-traumatise the individual, exacerbating mental ill health and creating more difficulties in addressing other, intertwined problems – such as homelessness, substance use, chronic physical, health problems and crime.
- Even though there is National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidance in place to prevent it, people are frequently pushed into individual treatment pathways. Mental health, homelessness, and drugs and alcohol services are all designed and funded as if people fit into one box, rather than the reality that people’s problems are complex and interwoven. They cannot be addressed one-by-one but need to be approached holistically.
It’s so important to have a Mental Health Act which works for vulnerable people – like our clients — who find it difficult to engage in mainstream services and who need person-centred care which takes into account their complex needs.
Just changing the law won’t be a magic switch. Money is needed for chronically underfunded mental health services and we need attitudes towards mental ill health to shift, although there’s been some good progress. Overhauling the Mental Health Act 1983 is a good place to start.