The (almost) mental health ‘data revolution’

Mental health has been in the forefront of news and debate for a while now. This continued focus can only be a good thing for those needing better care, the workforce in the field, and the services provided.

In 2016, the NHS England ‘Five Year Forward View for Mental Health’ called for a data and transparency revolution. I loved this call to arms – it simply and passionately inferred that without data to monitor and hold the health service system to account, a disservice to mental health patients would occur.

So, that was then. Where are we now? A bit further along Revolution Road but not there yet.

We have more data collected and published providing insight on mental health services and prevalence of mental health disorders, which is great. For example, in 2015 it was difficult to know how much NHS England spent on mental health services, but in 2018 we can find a figure for this in the Mental Health Five Year Forward View Dashboard. Statisticians have also been working hard to create a Mental Health Services Dataset, which can provide greater insight into the services provided for adults and children accessing mental health care. And I look forward to the publication of the National Study of Health and Wellbeing, providing the much needed updated prevalence estimates of mental health disorders for children and young people in England.

What more can be done to deliver the revolution? Well, we know that being transparent helps demonstrate trustworthiness. Trust in numbers isn’t built by simply publishing data. More is needed. The data need to be easily found, contextual information is needed to enable everyone can assess the data in terms of accuracy, and everyone should be able to understand and easily use the data.

But, when looking at mental health data in England it is difficult to make sense of them.

This point was demonstrated after a Twitter debate between the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and actor Ralf Little. Some claims were contradictory and it was difficult to determine why. Other claims couldn’t be verified because data weren’t published – either in the breakdown needed or at all. These difficulties were all brought to light by Full Fact’s work to communicate to the public a fair and accurate verification of the data used. But these difficulties indicate to me that statisticians need to do more to help people find, understand and use these important data. And by people, I mean everyone because often it is the needs of experts that are catered for, and other’s needs are not.

Sir David Norgrove and I have had to intervene on several occasions in the last three months asking statisticians to make their data more accessible (as listed at the end of my blog), assessable, and useable (in the words of Baroness Onora O’Neill). Statisticians have responded well to our interventions, for example by providing new insight into the mental health workforce and NHS spending on mental health services. And these changes will hopefully enhance future public debates and discussions about mental health.

But, I would rather that improvements like these were made without our intervention. A data and transparency revolution requires much more to be done by the different organisations that publish mental health data to enable people to find, understand, and use such important data.