News round-up (28 March 2024)

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28th March 2024 about a 6 minute read

The government has come under criticism this week – both for its introduction of benefit sanctions for people with mental health problems who refuse job offers, and for its decision to close mental health hubs that provide psychological support for NHS staff. Meanwhile, the CQC has issued what Mind calls a “damning” report on the use of the Mental Health Act. Technology is also in the news, as a small study shows that electrical pulses delivered to the brain can alleviate depression symptoms, while NICE has published an early guidance assessment providing recommendations on health technologies that can help manage psychosis symptoms.

Open letter demands continued investment in NHS staff mental health hubs

The government should continue to invest in NHS mental health hubs in England, to prevent an exodus of health workers, according to an open letter to the health secretary.

The open letter, signed by 18 organisations – including health unions and representative bodies for NHS employers, psychologists, psychiatrists, radiographers, anaesthetists and physiotherapists – asks Victoria Atkins to restore funding for the mental health hubs set up for NHS staff, social workers and social care staff.

Only 10 NHS mental health hubs have confirmed some funding for the year ahead. Of the original 40 hubs, 18 have closed since March 2023, and a further three are set to close by the end of this month. Nine are yet to receive confirmation of whether they will have the funding to continue.

Downgrading benefits for people with mental health problems is dangerous, think tank says

The government’s decision to downgrade disability benefits for people with mental health problems is both dangerous and unlikely to help people get into work, the Centre for Mental Health has argued.

“Reducing people’s benefits and putting them at risk of sanctions is harmful and will increase rates of mental ill health,” said the Centre’s chief executive Andy Bell. “Better support to get work is needed, not the threat of greater impoverishment.”

Bell said there had been a “sharp rise in mental ill health since 2020,” adding that this was “not a cultural phenomenon but a real rise in distress, depression and anxiety.”

He said the government was right to invest in expanding Individual Placement and Support employment services that have the best chance of helping people to find a job and improve their health. He added, however, that the “shadow of sanctions” would undermine this approach: “It will make people’s health worse and offer no help at all to job seeking.”

The pandemic affected boys’ mental health more than girls’

The Covid-19 pandemic had a greater impact on boys’ mental health than that of girls, research has found.

The study, published in European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, followed a group of 11-14 year olds over three waves of measurement before and after the onset of the pandemic. The researchers, from the University of Reading, Manchester Metropolitan University, University of Liverpool and King’s College London, used a longitudinal dataset, the Wirral Child Health and Development Study (WCHADS). This enabled them to examine changes associated with increasing age as well as with the pandemic.

Initial reports of a pandemic-related increase in depression in young adolescent girls could be explained by a natural rise in these symptoms as they get older, the study’s authors said. In contrast, pandemic-related increases in boys’ depression and both boys’ and girls’ behavioural problems may have been masked by maturational changes over early adolescence.

Headset transmitting electronic pulses can reduce depression, study finds

A headset that can transmit electronic pulses to the brain has been found to improve symptoms of depression, a small trial has found.

The trial, run by Northamptonshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust (NHFT), found that, of 14 people with moderate to severe depression, 10 experienced improvements.

The device, which is made by a company called Flow Neuroscience,w orks by stimulating brain activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in the front of the brain, an area linked with depression. It delivers weak electrical currents, through electrodes placed on the forehead.

Users can control the electrical current via an app that connects to the headset through Bluetooth.

Professor Alex O’Neill-Kerr from NHFT said it was important to explore alternatives to medication: “If you fail three or four antidepressants, the chances of you responding to treatment is pretty much zero and that represents one third of patients with depression. I’ve seen patients of mine that I’ve known for months if not years, get better with transcranial direct-current stimulation.”

 Mind describes CQC report as ‘wake-up call’

The mental health charity Mind has described the newly-published CQC report on the use of the Mental Health Act as “damning”.

The annual report, published this week, identifies widespread workforce issues, including problems with retention that affect the safety of both patients and staff. It also said that patients were not having a say into the kinds of treatment they receive, and that there were systematic racial injustices in the use of the Act.

Dr Sarah Hughes, chief executive of Mind, said: “Such a damning report should be a wake-up call to usher in urgent changes to the way we look after people in mental health crisis – but this has now become the new normal.”

She added that the report “shows why now more than ever, we should be supporting people in crisis, not bothering or belittling them for trying to get the right support as we’ve seen in recent political rhetoric.”

NICE publishes early guidance assessment for technologies to manage symptoms of psychosis 

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has published an early guidance assessment providing recommendations on health technologies to help manage symptoms of psychosis and prevent relapse in adults and young people.

Three digital solutions have been included in the assessment: AVATAR Therapy, for managing auditory verbal hallucinations; SlowMo, for managing distressing thoughts or paranoia; and CareLoop, for monitoring symptoms of psychosis to prevent relapse.

The assessment aims to support earlier patient and system access in the NHS while further evidence is being generated. NICE will then “review the evidence and assess if the technologies can be routinely adopted in the NHS”.

NICE said that “care for people living with severe mental illness hasn’t changed significantly for decades” and added that their aim was to “transform care using digital technology to support service user participation.”  They also hoped the technology could “prevent escalation by predicting personalised early warning signs for timely intervention.”