We need a revolution

Luciana Berger MP

To mark the launch of the Fabian Health network, Luciana Berger outlines five key areas which could revolutionise mental health care 

When it comes to mental health, there has undoubtedly been progress over the last few years. Not least, it has risen up the political agenda to become mainstream political business. Perhaps the greatest step forward in recent years was the coalition government’s acceptance in 2012, as an amendment to the Health and Social Care bill, of parity of esteem between physical and mental health. It came after intense pressure from my Labour colleagues in the House of Lords.

However, four years later, we are far from this reality. I have pressed ministers on this issue over and over again, and they remain unable to tell us when true equality for mental health will be achieved. Mental illness is common, widespread and part of everyday life. It impacts on millions of families, in every village, town and city.

At every stage of life, from childhood issues such as bullying, to issues such as loneliness which is most common towards the end of life, we need to attend to our mental health needs. Given the prevalence of mental illness, the huge impact across the ages, sexes and classes, and the vast cost to the economy, which the government puts at £105.2 billion each year in England alone, (more than double the UK’s defence budget) you would think this would be a national priority.

But this tragically is not the case: we have mental health services in crisis. The system is at breaking point, with greater demand for services not being met by greater supply. The simple truth is that no matter how hard mental health professionals and volunteers work, no matter how creative and ingenious they are with the resources they have, no matter how patient the families of people with mental health issues are, the system as a whole is falling over.

Over the past parliament, there was a £600 million shortfall in NHS mental health funding, and there are more cuts to come under this Government. 45.6 per cent of NHS mental health trusts are reporting deficits in their budgets – needing to spend more than they have been allocated, and the Government’s own mental health taskforce says that our mental health services will need an extra £1bn by 2020. For the third year in a row I have had to carry out my own national FOI investigation to find out how much local areas are spending on mental health. This year 57 per cent of CCGs are not meeting the Government’s pledge to increase their spending in line with overall budgets. This is despite both Jeremy Hunt and Alistair Burt publicly committing to this, and its importance, on a number of occasions.

We need a revolution in our attitudes towards mental health, and in the way we treat mental illness.

There are five areas which I believe would make a good starting point for change:

1. We need to properly integrate our systems of treatment and care across the NHS, social care, local authorities and charities, so that there are clear points of access, smooth pathways to treatment, and seamless ongoing care for everyone who needs it. It is starting to happen – but we need a comprehensive change to our system so we treat people as a whole, and not one symptom at a time.

2. We need a massive investment in mental health services, with an emphasis on recruitment of – and retention of – staff. We must have enough trained doctors, nurses, counsellors and others in place to meet rising demand.

3. We need renewed funding into research and development into mental health, to identify causes and develop treatments and cures. I am concerned that one of the many negative effects of Brexit may be a further reduction in research funding, including into mental health. Ministers must provide real assurances that funding will be replaced.

4. We need to start young, with more work in schools to equip the next generation with the facts, information and lexicon to discuss mental health. Today’s school children will need huge reserves of mental resilience to navigate the world they will inherit, and we must invest in their mental health now.

5. It cannot be left to our health service to fix the nation’s mental health. This means a new national effort including with employers to safeguard their employees’ mental health in the workplace. It means renewed efforts in the armed services, in our prisons, in our universities and in every community to discuss mental health, provide support and protect individuals. Prevention, early diagnosis and support, is better than waiting until a crisis hits.

I will continue to do my very best to hold the government to account and contribute to Labour’s policy development so we have an alternative for the future, and I wish the Fabian’s new health network the best of luck in their work to do the same. I look forward to working together in the future.

To find out more about the Fabian Society’s health network contact: [email protected]

Image: Paul

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