AFTER centuries of neglect, mental health is finally beginning to rise on the social and political agenda in the UK. For the first time, politicians are beginning to start taking mental health seriously and are starting to talk about mental health problems in themselves and their families.
Until relatively recently, mental illness and psychiatric services were seen as poor cousins to be talked about in hushed tones. Gordon Brown showed true leadership when he allocated more than £300 million towards increasing access to psychological therapies.
That was the case based on economic argument. When politicians discussed mental illness, they talked about their constituents who were suffering from mental illness and very occasionally, privately, they would talk about members of the family who may have had alcohol problems, depression or dementia.
Charles Walker MP, was chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on mental health. He had the courage to take the lead – he had stood up in the Commons and spoken publicly about his obsessive-compulsive symptoms and even called himself a fruitcake. He was joined by a number of politicians including Kevin Jones, who talked about their depression; Sarah Wollaston, who discussed her post-natal illness and many others. For the first time ever, the Commons reflected the population it serves. The coalition government, to its credit, has taken mental health issues seriously. Paul Burstow, the first Lib Dem minister responsible for mental health and social care, talked about dementia and integration between social care and mental health care. His successor Norman Lamb and the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg have both been very vocal and clear in their message about the importance of mental health and the funding to deliver mental health care. Labour’s shadow health secretary Andy Burnham has been talking about mental health.
The government has started taking the dementia challenge seriously and have allocated extra funds in research and clinical services. It is immensely welcome that policy makers and those in power are taking mental health seriously. It reflects changing attitudes in society, where we know that one in four of us are likely to develop mental illness of one kind or another. What is even more significant is that placing mental health as equal to physical well-being will get rid of the false dichotomy between the two.
We know when we are physically ill, our mental health suffers and when we have mental illness, our physical health suffers, but this link has not always been recognised. At the global level too, mental health and its recognition have reached a tipping point.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) has recently established a Global Agenda Council which is looking at mental health in the work place, to identify good practice by companies that recognise and support employees who develop mental health problems. However, equally importantly, those who develop mental illnesses also need to be integrated in the work place.
At the same WEF meeting in Dubai in October, former US vice-president Al Gore talked about mental health and its importance in daily and working life. This meeting was followed by a H20 health summit in Melbourne where, among other things, there was discussion of mental illness prior to the G20 summit in Brisbane. The World Bank has set up an advisory board looking at depression in particular, which is on track for becoming the disease causing the maximum health burden by 2020.
It is to politicians’ credit that they are not only talking about mental health issues but are also taking it seriously and raising awareness. There are still steps to take. Alcohol pricing is a major issue to ensure that problems related to alcoholism are reduced. Decriminalisation of drugs needs to be debated. We know that 75 per cent of mental illnesses in adulthood start below the age of 24 and nearly half begin below the age of 15, so we need to put preventive strategies in place.
Teaching parenting skills to everyone; teaching children how to cope with stress and be aware of stressors; making teachers and parents aware of vulnerable children’s needs; getting rid of bullying in schools; being aware of the impact of domestic violence on women and children; physical, sexual and emotional abuse of children; prisoner mental health care; mental health of vulnerable groups like the elderly, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people can all be helped by political and social structures. These should include anti-discriminatory laws or positive discrimination through changes in laws.
This is where politicians can take the lead and deliver resources to ensure that mental health of the entire population, including vulnerable individuals, is looked after. Everyone is aware of Ebola and its aftermath, but we still need to talk about the impact it has had on the mental health of those who have lost family members to the disease, and those who are frightened that they may get it.
When that starts to happen, a true tipping point would have been reached.