Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has unveiled new plans to expand the mental health workforce and address the “historic imbalance” in capacity in order to “fulfil ambitions” to improve mental health services.

The government is setting aside £1.3 billion to drive pledges to treat an extra one million patients by 2020 to 2021, provide services seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and integrate mental and physical health services for the first time.

Under the mental health workforce plan, local areas will need to create 21,000 new posts in priority growth areas by 2020/21 to facilitate the delivery of improvements to services and support set out in the NHS’ Five Year Forward View for Mental Health.

All major specialisms are to see an expansion in numbers, targeted towards areas where there are forecast to be particular shortfalls as demand on services increases, including: 2,000 additional nurses, consultants and therapist posts created in child and adolescent mental health services; 2,900 additional therapists and other allied health professionals supporting expanded access to adult talking therapies; and 4,800 new posts for nurses and therapists working in crisis care settings.

Perinatal mental health support, liaison and diversion teams and early intervention teams working with people at risk of psychosis should also see significant increases, the government noted.

A number of initiatives have been drawn up in order to achieve the workforce expansion necessary to realise ambitions laid out in the Five Year Forward View for the sector, including retention and care improvement programmes, a ‘Return to Practice’ campaign led by Health Education England, a new action plan to attract more clinicians to work in mental health services and psychiatry, development and expansion of new professional roles in mental health to help create more flexible teams and boost capacity, and co-ordinated action to tackle the high attrition rates among psychiatry trainees.

Action to improve the mental health and resilience of the workforce has also been pledged, with HEE to deliver a programme to improve awareness of mental health amongst NHS staff, including encouraging more GPs to undertake further formal training in psychiatry, and explore how to support Trusts in recruiting and training staff from abroad to meet short-term recruitment needs.

“As we embark on one of the biggest expansions of mental health services in Europe it is crucial we have the right people in post - that’s why we’re supporting those already in the profession to stay and giving incentives to those considering a career in mental health,” said Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt. “These measures are ambitious but essential for delivering the high performing and well-resourced mental health services we all want to see.”

“We do not underestimate the scale of this challenge,” added Professor Ian Cumming, HEE’s chief executive, but stressed that the plan “is a significant step to make the improvements to care we all know are needed a reality”.

‘Damaging lack of foresight’
Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, welcomed the plans, but also noted that “a damaging lack of foresight in workforce planning in the past has led us to where we are now, with a significant gulf between what’s in place and what’s needed to deliver good quality care.

“The success of the Five Year Forward View for Mental Health - the NHS’ plan for improving mental health services between now and 2021 - depends heavily on the capacity and quality of the workforce,” he said, and also called for “a longer-term, further-reaching strategy to build the kind of NHS mental health services that will carry us into the future, to cope with inevitable rising demand and to provide better integration of mental and physical health services.”

The announcement follows a stream of recent warnings on the state of mental health care in the country. Just last month a report by NHS Providers highlighted concerns about funding and staffing of mental health services, after a survey of NHS mental health trust chairs and chief executives revealed that less than one in three is confident they have enough staff to deliver existing services let alone extending or creating new ones.

A mere 10 percent said their local trust is managing demand and planning for unmet need for key mental health services, including those for children and young people, while 80 percent said extra money intended for mental health at a national level is still not getting through to NHS mental health trusts operating frontline services, underscoring some of the key issues being faced by the sector.