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Fine words on mental health must be backed up by progress on services

Alastair Campbell

Alastair Campbell

4 min read

When Lord Speaker John McFall heard me singing the praises of Tory MP Charles Walker on the Rest Is Politics podcast, he had the idea of bringing me and Charles together to talk about mental health.

Charles was one of the first MPs to open up about his mental health challenges, a road that very few have followed in the years since. It is a reasonable hesitation, for MPs to worry about what others – opponents, media, constituents – might think if they were suddenly to announce that they struggled with mental illness. All I would say is that I have never, ever regretted being open about my own issues of depression, addiction and, on one occasion, a full-blown psychotic breakdown. I shall find out when Charles and I combine to deliver one of Lord McFall’s lecture series, whether he feels the same. 

But both of us know this: until people feel they can be as open about their mental health as their physical health, the stigma and taboo surrounding this issue will remain with us, leading to continuing discrimination, misunderstanding and unnecessary pain. 

The same stigma and taboo used to surround cancer. “The Big C.” I remember, as a child, being told by my Mum that our neighbour had cancer. “You mustn’t tell anyone,” she said. That taboo since having been stripped away has been a good thing, for those who have cancer, those who treat it, and those who raise funds for the fight against it. We need the same stripping away of the taboo surrounding mental health. Only then can we begin to take steps towards making a reality of an NHS constitution which promises parity between mental and physical health. 

Four prime ministers ago, when Theresa May stood outside 10 Downing Street and promised to address “burning injustices”, the fact that she included mental health among them suggested the issue was high and rising up the political agenda. 

We have gone forward on awareness and understanding, but backwards on services

Her predecessor David Cameron had also said it was a priority. His chancellor George Osborne made a big thing of announcing extra funding. However the signature policy of the Cameron-Osborne years was austerity, which has had a severe impact on mental health services, not least because it saw mental health return to its traditional place at the back of the NHS queue. 

Osborne protegé Matt Hancock was made health secretary in the second year of Theresa May’s government. In the autumn of 2018 he hosted a Global Mental Health Summit. Hancock invited me to speak at the event and, introducing me, said that he felt it was “great that we are talking about mental health more”. I agreed, but I also said that I felt the talking had been going on long enough, and it was time that governments really started to deliver on that promise of parity. 

However, with Mrs May’s speech on taking office, Cameron’s rhetoric, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg’s support for the (now defunded) Time to Change campaign, and Osborne’s public spending boost, not to mention positive change in volume and tone of coverage across the media, it made those of us campaigning on mental health hopeful that we were getting somewhere. 

But looking back to those times now, it is hard not to feel that for all the steps forward made during the New Labour era and the early Tory years, particularly on awareness and understanding, we have since gone substantially backwards on services.  

For a combination of reasons, which have been all too clear, most in the sector would argue we have seen all too many setbacks. Sometimes campaigns need to be fought and refought before real progress is made. This is one of those fights.  

The Lord Speaker’s Lecture, Mental Health Matters: Turning Talk into Action was delivered by Alastair Campbell and Sir Charles Walker MP in the Sovereign’s Robing Room at 6.15pm on Wednesday 5 July 2023

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