An influential group of MPs has cast doubt on the government's pledge to bring treatment for mental health problems into line with physical health.
The public accounts committee (PAC) warned the move was neither "affordable nor achievable" given massive pressures on the NHS budget.
In a report out on Wednesday, it also warned about a lack of joined-up thinking on mental health between the NHS and other departments – with many sufferers struggling to access care in prisons and schools, and failing to find work.
Around 1 in 4 adults in England is diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their lives, with depression, anxiety, and panic disorders among the most common conditions.
Yet only around a quarter of people estimated to need mental health services actually have access to them, the cross-party committee found.
Back in February, the government announced an extra £1 billion a year to boost NHS mental health provision – which health secretary Jeremy Hunt said would help "truly deliver equality between mental and physical health".
But the PAC warned that NHS trusts were still under so much financial pressure that they might have "no choice other than to de-prioritise other mental or physical health services if they are to meet the new standards".
The MPs said: "Achieving parity of esteem between mental and physical health is a laudable ambition but pressure on the NHS budget will make it very difficult to achieve." And they warned that "systems for working across government are weak".
The report said: "People leaving prison, for example, have no consistent way to access mental health services on their release. Around half of people with lifetime mental health problems experience symptoms by the age of 14 and schools play an important part in identifying mental health issues among young people, but counselling services are not available in all schools.
"We also heard that services helping people with mental health problems get back
into work are not joined up between the NHS and the Department for Work and
The committee called on the government to work out exactly how much extra money and how many more staff are needed to put mental health care on a level footing with physical health.
Reacting to the report, Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb, a leading mental health campaigner, said the government should not be afraid to say that taxes might need to go up to pay for better care.
"Plans to improve mental health services will come to nothing unless the government addresses the cash crisis facing the NHS," he said. "Most of us do not want a bargain basement NHS where people with mental ill health still suffer outrageous discrimination in terms of access to treatment.
"It’s time to have a national conversation about how to ensure all patients, including those with mental health problems, are given the care they deserve. If providing an effective mental health system means raising taxes slightly, we should be prepared to say it."
A Department of Health spokesperson said the government had introduced the first mental health waiting times in the history of the NHS.
"We are determined to accelerate progress further working across government, and are backing the NHS’ plan to revolutionise mental health care with an additional £1 billion invested every year by 2020 – helping one million more people with mental illness access high-quality care," they said.
Emily Ashton is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Emily Ashton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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