Published: 13/05/2004, Volume II4, No. 5905 Page 8 9

Mental health's status as one of the government's priorities for the NHS is 'in danger of slipping', the chair of the National Mental Health Partnership has warned.

Maggie Cork's comments came at the end of the NMHP's first annual conference in York last week. They echo growing concern among senior managers that mental health is in danger of falling off the political agenda in the run-up to a general election next year.

Ms Cork, who is also chief executive of Leicestershire Partnership trust, said: 'I think there is a worry that the priority of mental health is in danger of slipping from its position...It sometimes feels as though it is not accorded the extra attention that a priority service should have.'

Speaking at the conference, health minister Rosie Winterton insisted that mental health sat along side coronary heart disease and cancer in its importance.

She told delegates: 'Mental health has been a priority. It will remain a priority. But I do not underestimate how difficult it will be to keep the focus sharp.'

One mental health trust chief executive told HSJ: 'There is a worry about the future value of the National Institute for Mental Health in England given what has happened to the Modernisation Agency [which is to be slimmed down (news, page 3, 11 March)].

'And I think there seems to be a vacuum at the core of the Department of Health left by Antony Sheehan [former head of mental health, then chief executive of NIMHE, who has now been made DoH director of care services].We are all delighted that he has been elevated within the DoH; he has considerable charisma and he's a very effective leader. But what is left behind?'

The chief executive added: 'We are often told by the government that the money is already out there and we should simply get on with it. That is fine, but I am only just getting money for crisis resolution teams...our acute wards are incredibly busy with sky-high occupancy rates and yet there is no more money for acute staff because It is going to mental health target areas.

'The [development of] target areas around community teams is running, but slowly in some areas.

And that is putting us between the devil and the deep blue sea.'

Newcomer: National Mental Health Partnership The National Mental Health Partnership was launched last autumn and represents 63 mental health service providers.

Chair Maggie Cork told HSJ: 'This is a very important conference.When we started out we wanted to be at the centre, influencing mental health. I think we are at that position where we can act as the voice for mental health in this country - especially around implementation of policy.'

The main theme to emerge from the conference was mental health workforce shortages, particularly the need for new roles for psychiatrists.One delegate said that consultants were exercising a 'stranglehold'over the service development because of their reluctance to change the way in which they worked.

Director of the National Workforce Programme at the National Institute of Mental Health in England Roslyn Hope admitted workforce planning across mental health was 'in its infancy': 'We need to link the needs of services and the implementation that this has for the workforce.We are not doing that effectively in the majority of areas at the moment.'