Mental health has risen up the political agenda, but there is still further to go
Over the next decade, we want politicians to take that understanding and turn it into action: tackling stigma, and committing to world class mental health services and the workforce to deliver them, says Ella Joseph, Co-Chief Executive, Think Ahead.
The past decade has been transformational in terms of the way we view and talk about mental health in the UK. Most obviously, we are becoming progressively more open about it: household names have spoken candidly about their own struggles and public health campaigns have encouraged people to think about their mental health.
As the chief executive of a charity that trains people to become mental health social workers, I have seen first-hand how important this. By getting people talking about mental health we can break down stereotypes and normalise the conversation, helping to improve relationships and aid recovery.
But I also know that we have much further to go to end the stigmatisation of the most severe mental health problems. Our trainees work with people who have illnesses like schizophrenia, personality disorders and bipolar disorder – these illnesses have a tremendous impact on the lives of people who experience them, and they disproportionately affect people from minority ethnic groups, and those living in poverty.
To be fair to our politicians, the issue has been rising steadily up the political agenda. Charles Walker MP and Kevan Jones MP broke new ground in 2012 when they spoke in Parliament about their own mental health problems. Digital records of what is said by MPs are now published every day online, and looking back a decade, we can see there were only around 400 significant speeches and interventions on mental health in the House of Commons. In the last 12 months, by contrast, the figure is over four times that.
With a new government and its majority big enough to take some bold decisions, the 2020s bring a great opportunity to make serious policy progress on mental health. How our political representatives talk about this issue and how the media report it are bellwethers of changes to come and whether there is cause for confidence about the direction of travel.
If the past decade put mental health on the map, the next must be about removing the stigma still attached to the more severe forms of illness and ensuring those experiencing problems can access the right support – including enabling services to respond in a meaningful way to inequalities in society.
A first step is trying to create an environment that is more understanding and this must include more constructive discussion of the more serious forms of illness. In the last year, MPs talking about mental health in the Commons were over 20 times more likely to be talking about depression than schizophrenia. Depression is more common among their constituents, but serious conditions desperately need more attention.
Secondly, the media has a responsibility not to enflame the stigma already surrounding severe mental health problems. Over the past year, national journalists have penned a multitude of stories about depression and anxiety, and the coverage can often be constructive, for example, in terms of raising awareness of the need to seek help. But there is much less about illnesses such as bipolar and schizophrenia, and pieces that do cover these are sometimes deeply unhelpful and often sensationalist.
Thirdly, people experiencing severe mental health problems need more support with the social issues that affect their mental health. Severe mental illness is entwined with social factors such as finances, employment, relationships, discrimination, housing and social exclusion – all things that our trainee social workers support people with.
Treatment of severe mental illness has progressively taken on a more holistic and social focus. In addition to talking and drug-based therapies, professionals are keenly aware that helping people manage social issues is critical to getting and staying psychologically well.
It's great to see this increased focus on social approaches. But there is still a long way to go. The vital role played by social workers in mental health care is frequently overlooked. Social approaches should be more valued, as should the dedicated professionals who promote them.
The benefits of taking action are clear: the Government’s own recent “Thriving at Work” report showed the cost of mental ill health to the UK economy was somewhere between £74bn and £99bn each year.
Over the past ten years, we have made encouraging leaps forward as a society when it comes to being open about our mental health, and MPs of all parties should be congratulated for playing their part. Over the next decade, we want politicians to take that understanding and turn it into action: tackling stigma, and committing to world class mental health services and the workforce to deliver them.
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