19 December 2019

By Liz Sayce

We hear all the time that one in four of us experiences a mental health condition every year. It’s something that can happen to anyone. And it’s true. But it’s not the case that we are all equally likely to develop mental health difficulties. The chances are far from equally distributed. People from some social groups face much higher risks than others, and poor mental health is closely linked with economic and social inequality. We need to put equality at the centre of our discussions of improving mental health and wellbeing.

As the new Government sets out its agenda with its first Queen’s Speech today, building on the Conservative Party election manifesto, it has an opportunity to tackle some of the biggest inequalities and injustices in society. And over the next six months, the Commission for Equality in Mental Health will set out some of the essential steps that government, commissioners and civil society can take to ensure more people enjoy better mental health for longer in the next decade.

As the new Government sets out its agenda, it has an opportunity to tackle some of the biggest inequalities and injustices in society.

The Conservative Party manifesto made a number of important pledges. They include a promise to focus on preventing poor health as well as investing in the NHS; a pledge to develop a funding settlement for social care; and a promise to produce a cross-government disability strategy (where disabled people of course include those living with long-term mental health challenges, who could benefit from a strategy that ‘joins up’ areas like housing, education and health). All of these important developments must be undertaken with mental health in mind for people of all ages. Preventing mental health inequalities must be at the heart of plans to create better health for all. Without it we cannot, for instance, achieve a smoke-free future or reduce alcohol-related harm: as evidence shows that individuals take decisions in the context of their lives and the wider environment, and changing that context is critical to success.

Some further essential steps are acknowledged in the Government’s manifesto. For instance, reforming the Mental Health Act could mean addressing the inequalities in the experiences of the Act of many Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, and this must be a priority for the implementation of Sir Simon Wessely’s review.

Poverty is toxic to mental health, especially for children. Ending family poverty is a vital step to reduce the risk of mental health problems among children

The Government’s manifesto also set out its plan to continue the transition towards Universal Credit. Current developments to enable people to move to the new benefit are taking place on a small scale initially, to ensure learning. It will be vital that this transition safeguards mental and physical health among families on low incomes. Poverty is toxic to mental health, especially for children. Ending family poverty is a vital step to reduce the risk of mental health problems among children and their lifelong consequences.

Next month, the Commission for Equality in Mental Health will publish the first of a series of briefings exploring key aspects of mental health inequality and what we can do to tackle it. They will be followed by a final report in the summer setting out what a system designed for equality in mental health would look like. We hope the new Government will take the opportunity to commit to mental health equality and take steps across all departments to achieve it at the start of a new decade.