England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Panorama documentary exposes abuse: A mental health worker responds

Panorama’s recent documentary – “Undercover Hospital: Patients at Risk”, which aired on Thursday 28 September has left many people feeling shocked, angered and upset. The TV documentary details a catalogue of abusive behaviour from some staff towards mental health service users on an inpatient unit in Greater Manchester.

Many mental health workers, who have dedicated their professional career to supporting the recovery of people experiencing mental health issues, feel particularly angry at the bullying and abusive behaviour by a small number of staff towards patients, who are some of the most vulnerable people in society.

The programme shows a toxic environment, where bullies can seemingly operate without being challenged by managers or colleagues. Toxic cultures develop when senior managers and the organisation consistently ignore concerns raised about the service by staff, service users and carers.

Earlier in the year, the local trade union (UNISON) branch had raised their concerns about unsafe staffing levels, a reduced number of registered staff, the high workloads of staff and the retention of experienced staff, not only on inpatient units but also in Community Mental Health Centres. The union launched a Safe Staffing Campaign in August, to improve the service for all mental health service users, as well as dealing with the safety concerns of workers. This campaign is bringing together trade unionists, NHS workers, carers and service users, who have identified the toxic environment in some local mental health services, long before Panorama carried out their investigation.

A mental health service with unsafe staffing levels, low morale, where low pay forces staff to work increasingly longer weeks, where qualified staff are thin on the ground and where management ignore concerns can lead to an environment where the therapeutic relationship is degraded. Ward staff can feel exhausted, demotivated and unsafe, and this undermines their ability to support patients with complex and challenging needs. This can create more frustration in the service users struggling with severe and enduring mental health issues and can create a vicious circle where staff can become more defensive and less able to offer a caring and supportive relationship.

Put simply, key workers in frontline mental health services who are worried and distracted by their own concerns about the cost of living crisis, low pay, rising bills and unsafe working conditions are less able to reach out emotionally to service users struggling with very distressing mental health issues. A safe and well funded service benefits us all.

Over a decade of attacks by Tory governments has left the NHS, and particularly our mental health services, overstretched and underfunded. With over 120,000 job vacancies in the NHS, this tells a story of low pay, low morale and high stress levels, leading to experienced staff leaving the service. On 30 September, the BBC reported that 40,000 nurses have left the NHS in the last 12 months. These attacks on NHS workers are continuing with many NHS Trusts reintroducing car parking charges, and of course the Tory government is trying to impose another pay cut on NHS staff.

The main unions in the NHS are in the process of balloting their members for strike action, with UNISON recommending the government’s pay offer is rejected. The union is launching a pay campaign to deal with the decades of pay cuts that have left many with a 30% pay cut, in real terms, over the last 12 years. These key workers kept the services functioning during the pandemic, and are facing extremely testing conditions working in overstretched services. However the fight for a decent pay rise can act as the first step in dealing with the unsafe staffing levels and low morale that forces experienced staff to leave, with many feeling burnt out.

The Panorama documentary has provoked a massive response, with many calling for a public enquiry. However what we need is an enquiry that is led by workers, trade unionists, carers and service users, to avoid a ‘whitewash’ directed and dictated by management and the establishment. We can only guard against this abuse of service users in the future and unsafe staffing levels, if we have an open an honest enquiry, learn the lessons from the events and recognise the steps we need to take. This will mean organising it democratically, and led by those workers and communities impacted by this scandal.

Without adequate funding for these services, without service users, carers and staff working together, and without a management that is responsive to and responsible to these groups, then the likelihood of more tragic events remains.

We demand:

  • A public enquiry led by workers, carers and service users
  • Mental health matters – fully funded services to help treat mental health issues, as well as to help address its causes
  • Nationalise the pharmaceutical companies under democratic workers` control and management
  • Save our NHS – stop the sell off! Build a mass, national campaign to stop cuts and closures and demand full funding for our health service. Stop and reverse all privatisation and cancel PFI debts

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