When Jeremy Corbyn got to grill David Cameron during Prime Minister’s Questions for the first time last Wednesday, he devoted two of his questions – a third of his weekly prime-time platform – to talking about mental health. And as if to back up this statement of intent, Corbyn has also created a new shadow cabinet position of Shadow Minister for Mental Health.
This is hugely significant. For too long, mental health issues have been a taboo subject, rarely spoken of and consequently deprived of much needed focus and funding. Put on the political back-burner and with responsibility for mental health policy and care provision split awkwardly between the NHS, local authorities and patient groups, it is little wonder that people now speak of an unaddressed “epidemic” of mental illness.
The statistics speak for themselves. As many as a quarter of the British population will suffer some kind of mental health issue at some point in a given year, including ten per cent of all children. By far the most common mental disorder is mixed anxiety and depression, with women more likely to be treated than men, and 90 per cent of all prisoners suffering a mental health condition. The cost to our society – whether measured in lost working days or lost lives is enormous, reaching £26 billion per year, making the newfound focus on mental health long overdue.
But how does revolutionising mental health care fit into our current age of austerity and government spending restraint? The newly appointed Shadow Minister for Mental Health, Luciana Berger, points out that the Department of Health is currently expected to fall short of its pledge to invest an extra £250 million in children’s mental health services by a whole £107 million.
But by failing to spend sufficient money on preventative and early life treatment of common mental health conditions, we only open ourselves to greater expense further down the road, as Berger points out:
“Both from a human and economic aspect it makes much more sense to help young people early on, to prevent mental illness in the first place, to have that early intervention. If not there are the wider repercussions on relationships, on a person’s ability to keep their jobs, their homes.”
Working toward parity of esteem between mental health and physical health conditions is an important step in the right direction, but until it is matched by an equal seriousness in funding – something which has been sorely lacking from governments of both parties – it will remain just words. What’s needed is not just a step change in how we view mental illness, but a newfound willingness to invest in a healthier population.
This is a time when politicians, the NHS, industry and patient groups can work together to make a positive difference that can actually achieve something – a lasting legacy of improved mental healthcare in the UK. Making it easier to access mental health services and reducing the stigma around common mental health issues has the potential to vastly improve the quality of life of patients.
Politicians now have the opportunity to prove their commitment, by supporting the Private Member’s Bill brought by Rehman Chishti MP, which would oblige healthcare service commissioners to issue a report every year, explaining how they are meeting the needs of patients with mental health problems.
As Professor Sir Simon Wessely and Gregory Smith of the Royal College of Psychiatrists urge:
“Transparency in this area, combined with the funded introduction of waiting time standards, could finally see mental health services – the Cinderella of the NHS – go to the ball, and we call on the Prime Minister to support Mr Chishti’s Bill.”
Genuine parity of esteem, backed by serious funding commitments and the promise of full transparency within the health service: this is the only way to tackle the slow-burning crisis in mental healthcare. The coming year will quickly reveal whether Britain really takes mental health as seriously as we now claim.
Jenny Hooper, Senior Account Executive, Healthcare
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January 21, 2021