The number of mental health nurses working in the NHS has dropped by almost a sixth since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, figures show.
The revelation has sparked fresh doubt that government pledges to improve mental health services are being matched by progress at the NHS frontline.
Philip Dunne, the health minister, has admitted in a written parliamentary answer that while there were 45,384 mental health nurses working in England in 2010, there were just 38,774 in July this year.
That fall of 6,610 nurses represents the loss of about 1,000 such specialists a year, or almost 15% of the entire workforce providing that sort of vital care to patients over the last six and a half years.
“This is a very worrying downward trend that shows no sign of turning around, despite all the government’s pronouncements and pledges about equality for mental health care compared to physical health care,”Labour MP Luciana Berger, the ex-shadow health minister, commented.
The Royal College of Nursing claimed the figures proved that patients were being let down and ministerial pledges of recent years were not being delivered.
Janet Davies, the RCN’s chief executive and general secretary, expressed her concern on the matter.
“These numbers make it very clear why so many mental health patients are simply not getting the care they need. The government has committed to equal treatment of mental and physical illness, but these figures show how far the health system still is from achieving that. Without the right number of nurses, people cannot get the care and treatment they need.”
Davies went on to opine that diminishing nurse numbers simply puts undue pressure on other aspects of the public sector.
“Early intervention is the most effective way to tackle mental health problems, but at the moment patients often aren’t being treated until they reach breaking point and problems are escalating out of control. The pressures on mental health services are spilling out into social care, A&E and even police custody.”
Mental health hospitals have seen the biggest fall in nursing staff. A total of 24,581 nurses worked in such settings in 2010 but by July that had dropped to 19,170 – a loss of 5,411 posts (22%).
In particular, the number of specialist nurses working with patients with learning disabilities had also fallen by 538 from 2,508 to 1,970, while those in “other learning disabilities” has fallen 44% from 2,628 to 1,483.
The Department of Health stated its belief that the figures did not give the full picture of the mental health workforce and that the number of both junior doctors and consultants working in psychiatry has been going up.
“Since 2012, the number of trainee doctors working in mental health settings during their foundation programme has more than doubled, we have seen the highest-ever fill rate for core psychiatry training, and mental health nursing trainee places are growing at a faster rate than any other nursing specialty in the NHS. This government is determined to address for the first time some of the very deep inequalities that people with mental ill health face, and while we have more to do, progress is being made,” a spokesman asserted.