There is a fantastic, thought-provoking BBC documentary on the iPlayer in its second series at the moment: Ambulance. It leaves me with enormous respect for the work of paramedics and an overwhelming sense of the human potential for suffering. However, I am incensed by the treatment of mental health patients in crisis.
Over and over again, viewers watch these patients being ferried to A&E, which is completely the wrong place for them. A&E can be a very triggering environment at the best of times, with traumatic injuries coming in, distressed children, angry people waiting, tears, frightening sounds and long delays. To somebody for whom the basics of daily life are overwhelming, A&E can be a suffocating, frightening space. We must stop sending people to A&E when they are experiencing the intense psychological pain of a mental health crisis. Those people need specialist care from people who understand their difficulties. You wouldn’t send someone with a broken leg to the dentist. You wouldn’t send someone giving birth to an optician. The current system is senseless and broken. It causes great harm to patients and enormous frustration to the paramedics stuck helpless with patients they don’t understand and can’t help.
If none of those reasons are enough to convince you to provide proper resources for mental health, then consider the insane expense to the NHS. Currently we are sending ambulances over and over again to the same people, so we can take them into A and E, where they become frightened or disillusioned and leave, or are offered an endless waiting list for therapy. The patients go home to continue experiencing the same problems. They feel unsafe and call again the next day, the next week, month and year at huge public expense. People who reach out for help and don’t get it are going to look for help elsewhere: perhaps the permanent quiet of suicide, perhaps drugs, alcohol, smoking, food, violent abuse of their loved ones, the list is endless. The cost to society is endless. The cost to our humanity is endless.
We must start taking mental health seriously and treating everyone as we would wish to be treated. Because the reality is: it could be any of us struggling next time, left running in a hamster wheel of panic and sirens. It could be any of us.
Without compassion, society cannot function.