Money is being diverted away from mental health trusts to cover NHS deficits in England, a survey finds.
Budgets have been reduced because of other NHS overspends
The report reveals nearly two-thirds of mental health trusts have been asked to cut their budget to cover overspending in other areas of the NHS.
The survey was carried out by the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health.
But Health Minister Rosie Winterton said there was "no evidence" the trusts were being affected by the current funding problems.
Nearly a third of NHS organisations failed to balance their books in 2005-2006, leaving the NHS with a deficit of £512m.
SCMH sent surveys to the finance directors of all 76 NHS mental health trusts in England, 32 of which replied.
They found the vast majority of the trusts had managed to keep within their budget limits for the period 2005-2006, but three-quarters had had to take special measures, such as recruitment freezes, to achieve this.
However, 63% of trusts surveyed said they had been asked to reduce their costs for 2006-2007 by an average of 3.2% of their budget.
Of these, 83% said the reductions were being sought to deal with the wider heath economy, particularly Primary Care Trusts (PCT) deficits.
New funding system
Sixty-eight percent of finance directors also said Payment by Results was diverting money away from their trusts.
This new system means services are paid per patient treated rather than getting lump sums. So far it has only been rolled out to hospital services such as non-emergency operations and some A&E and outpatient care.
Angela Greatley, chief executive of SCMH, said: "Our survey shows that mental health trusts are successfully managing their finances. But many are having to make cuts to staff and services to get by.
"It is very worrying that mental health trusts are being squeezed to pay for the overspends of acute trusts using the new Payment by Results system.
"It is essential to maintain that principle that the needs of mental health service users and their families are not compromised by financial pressures elsewhere in the system."
Dr Gill Morgan, chief executive of the NHS Confederation which represents over 90% of NHS organisations, said: "It is vitally important that NHS organisations that succeed and achieve financial balance are rewarded for their efforts and don't see money taken away because other parts of the NHS are overspending.
Sophie Corlett, policy director of mental health charity Mind, said: "This timely report adds to the growing evidence for what we already know -- that when it comes to money, mental health is always last in line.
"These services are an easy target, often not considered as essential as other health provision. But mental health can be a life or death issue."
But Health Minister Rosie Winterton said: "There is no evidence to suggest that mental health services are being disproportionately affected by the current funding situation.
"I know that last year, 11 trusts made small funding cuts to their mental health services, but these came to only 0.3% of last year's total investment in adult mental health.
"I know that many NHS organisations have to make tough financial decisions at the moment, and it is right that they look at how they deliver services to patients in the most efficient way possible. Improving financial management does not mean compromising services for patients."
Shadow Health Minister Tim Loughton, of the conservative party, said: "The government continues to be complicit with mental health services being treated as the Cinderella services of the NHS."