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Five year forward view – a backwards step at a mental health conference.

ConferenceBy Vanessa Pinfold

I recently attended a mental health conference, reflecting on talks delivered by national policy leaders, voluntary sector providers and others exploring progress on delivering the five year forward view for mental health. NHS England, Public Health England, Department of Health, NHS mental health provider’s forum, charities were all represented.

At McPin, we often attend workshops and events and write reflection blogs to help us disseminate learning and share viewpoints on current developments in mental health and research. I thought I would be focusing on policy and evidenced-based practice elements; unfortunately, that is not this blog.

I am still coming to terms with my conference experience. An experience that put together policy updates with blatant (and inappropriate) product advertising. Commercialisation is now a routine part of healthcare – NHS, voluntary sector and the private sector – we can’t escape it. While understanding how the private sector is involved in mental health care delivery is an important policy issue, so it is good to see them involved in conferences, I was shocked to be ambushed in a plenary session at conference with maybe 300 other people (less after some walked out) with direct product advertising from one company.

I understand the role of sponsors of stands at a conference and advertising materials in a conference pack – as a delegate, you can choose to visit, read and engage or not. But after updates on critical issues such as children and young people’s mental health services, use of online talking therapies and public health local needs assessments – we were left listening to one company’s take on why they were the best in the business.

One of my key concerns and objections, was the tone and language used in this product advertisement. The presentation promoted products to protect staff because they “are often exposed to assault and violent outbursts”. We heard all about product systems to support organisations address abusive and violent behaviour from people using their service. The language emphasis in this area is usually about safety not violence and abuse. I am not saying staff don’t need to feel safe at work, of course, they do, but where was the service user perspective both in developing these products (co-design) and benefiting from gadgets that keep them safe too.

In fact, the Care Quality Commission presentation early that morning emphasised a key concern is sexual safety on mental health wards. Other people walked out of the session describing gadgets and products to protect staff. Maybe because they felt it was inappropriate too. How can a conference that is built upon a co-produced strategy for the five year forward view, focused on recovery and person-centred provision? Why I asked the organisers? Who decided on this programme?

I should explain I got a free place at the event. The agenda looked interesting and I felt it would be a good opportunity to listen to key leaders talk about progress in mental health service delivery. As a research organisation ,there is always the chance that we get lost in the detail – it’s always good to network more widely in the sector. I spoke to another attendee who commented they don’t usually attend these types of events because they are so commercial.

A lot of leading charities were sponsors and had stands. Is this the future? I really hope not. Or if it is we need guidance (values-based practice) so that all speakers and stand holders are vetted and supported to use appropriate language, including when describing staff and patient safety. We need experts by experience on the organising committees of conferences – commercial or otherwise – and employed by conference companies to ensure they get this right. There were no experts by experience speakers the morning plenary sessions.

There was lots to be interested about such as:

  • The Peer support roles being mentioned; I hope this includes leadership development for people using expertise from experience as an asset in job roles.
  • Many questions were raised about the funding of community sector mental health support that has been disappearing in recent years.
  • Patient choice was planned alongside risk assessment in some commercial companies looking to develop product solutions to support the improvement of mental health care.
  • There was a variety of case studies presented including the Amy Winehouse Foundation and Organisational development work with the police force.

However, I still feel very uneasy about commercial product advertisement in plenary sessions and a lack of co-production in any event that builds upon the five year forward view for mental health. Co-production was a founding principle of the work. I have asked the organisers for comment – no response yet! Does anyone else feel the same way?