Throughout history, Conservatives in the One Nation tradition have always been concerned about the most pressing social issues of the age. The current debate about mental health is one such issue.
Mental health has long been the Cinderella service of the NHS. But with increased public awareness, a greater government focus and February’s publishing of the Five Year Forward View For Mental Health report, things are beginning to change. There is a much greater social, political and medical will to start creating a mental health care service that is fit for purpose, and which chimes with the most important principles of Conservatism: providing the platform to enable people from all walks of life in all situations to live the best possible life that they can.
During the last Parliament, all parties realised the central importance of good mental health care and it shot up the policy agenda. The Coalition introduced the notion of parity between physical and mental health in the NHS. Waiting time targets for people experiencing mental ill-health were introduced. More recently an independent Mental Health Taskforce has spent the last 11 months carrying out a root and branch analysis of mental health care provision in the UK to find out exactly where improvement is needed. It has now reported back, offering 52 separate recommendations to implement by 2020.
The report, which has been welcomed by the Government, is the most comprehensive review of the state of mental health provision that this country has ever seen. The Taskforce consulted with tens of thousands of people including those experiencing mental health difficulties, their carers and mental health professionals at the front line. It considered the needs of children, young adults, adults, the elderly, people from ethnic backgrounds and people both in and out of work. Improvements in access to high quality services, choice of interventions, integrated physical and mental health care, prevention initiatives, help to get and keep a job, funding and challenging stigma were people’s top priorities as to how the system needs to change by 2020.
As the report so clearly highlights, mental health is one of the biggest challenges we face. Currently one in four people struggle with mental health issues every year. Instances of suicide are increasing after many years of decline. People with serious mental illness die on average 15-20 years earlier than those without it. 50 per cent of mental health problems, excluding dementia, begin before the age of 14, blighting lives before they have even properly started. Mental ill health causes more disability than any other health condition. It results in unnecessary suffering and causes long-term economic damage. It costs the economy in England an estimated £105 billion per annum, which is equal to the entire NHS annual budget. Yes – you did read that right. The annual cost of mental ill-health in England is the same as the annual cost of the entire NHS. Whether taking human, societal or economic measures into account, poor mental health is devastating.
We now have a clear report on where mental health care is today, where it needs to get to, and how to get there. It will take much effort, radical thinking, system reshaping and finance to achieve this. It will also take cross-department government focus, political will and significant funding. With its support of the Taskforce’s recommendations and David Cameron’s recent funding announcements, the Conservative Government has clearly signalled its commitment to provide just that in the coming 5 years.
David Cameron has made 2 speeches on mental health this year and announced a raft of new money including £1 billion of investment, targeted support for new mums and the first ever waiting time targets for teenagers with eating disorders. Plans include £290 million of new investment over the next 5 years to provide mental healthcare for new mums, £247 million to invest in liaison mental health services in emergency departments, over £400 million to enable 24/7 treatment in communities as a safe and effective alternative to hospital and enlarged services to help teenagers with eating disorders; anorexia kills more than any other mental health condition.
Previous government funding commitments for mental health over the last 12 months includes £150 million for young people with eating disorders and £1.25 billion for perinatal and children and young people’s mental health.
We are at a cross-road in how we deal with mental health in this country. There has been a steady change in the way it is talked about and reported on. The stigma of mental health is breaking down with more and more people from all walks of life talking about their own struggles with mental ill-health. We have a once in a generation opportunity to make mental health care fit for purpose and put it at the heart of our NHS system. By delivering on our manifesto pledges and driving through the report recommendations, we can show what it means to be a truly One Nation Government, committed to helping everyone in society.
I can think of no better way of doing this than to develop a health system which offers a broad range of services and safe care facilities, a pre-natal service which provides better care for pregnant mothers and new parents, an education system that identifies early stage mental health problems at the point when they start, and a judicial system that deals compassionately with those who struggle with mental illness. Implementing practical measures in all of these areas is the very definition of one nation Conservatism. We now have a clear view of what needs to be done, and the political will to see it through.
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