Cutting mental health services through “shortcut commissioning” will have a disastrous effect on people’s health as well as the economy, academics have warned.

Mental health services are particularly vulnerable to cuts, according to a joint report by the London School of Economics, Mental Health Network and Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Significant disinvestment in mental health services would, without doubt, deliver immediate, medium and long term pain for the NHS and other public services

The report - Mental Health and the Economic Downturn - said this was down to the lack of a national tariff for mental health and few sophisticated metrics for measuring quality or value for money in the sector.

It says: “Significant disinvestment in mental health services would, without doubt, deliver immediate, medium and long term pain for the NHS and other public services.

“Most importantly, it would have a negative impact on people experiencing mental distress and illness, as well as their carers and families.”

“Such shortcut commissioning would not only increase their burden, but would ultimately result in a larger economic burden for the nation,” the report warns.

It says mental health trusts needs a “new relationship with commissioners”, with far greater support for commissioners’ training and development in the area of mental health.

The report also recommends that GPs direct patients with mental health problems to a “triage” team to carry out risk assessments and refer patients to the most appropriate part of the mental health system.

Royal College of GPs chair Steve Field said he welcomed this approach as long as his patients were assessed quickly and by specialists. Some referrals were being scrutinised by “very junior doctors”, he warned.

Concerns are also raised in the report about the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme, which aims to get 25,000 people with anxiety and depression off sick pay and benefits by 2010-11. It warns such programmes lose out to secondary care services. But it says the access programme is believed to be “particularly at risk after 2011”, because of its targets focus on returning people to employment coinciding with a redundancies increase.

HSJ’s conference on Commissioning Mental Health and Wellbeing is on 28 January 2010 in London. For more details visit www.hsj-mhcommissioning.com