A louder voice for mental health

22 November 2013
By Andy Bell

This week, five MPs have marked Parliament Week by writing blogs for Centre for Mental Health on the importance of a range of mental health issues in their constituencies. The five MPs come from three different political parties and from different parts of the country. They are united, however, by a common understanding of the importance of mental health in their constituencies and the need for greater attention both locally and nationally to the needs of people living with a mental health condition.

A few years ago, it was a rare occurrence indeed for mental health issues to be talked about in parliament. Few members of parliament felt compelled to champion mental health issues or raise concerns about the needs of people with mental health problems. When mental health issues did receive political attention, it was often only because of concerns about risk and violence that often exacerbated stigma rather than reducing it.

In the last two years, by contrast, mental health has been debated in parliament on numerous occasions, on a range of different topics. Some MPs have talked about their own experiences of mental ill health for the very first time. And last year parliament legislated to outlaw the last vestiges of discriminatory legislation against people with mental health problems such as the bar on jury service or sitting as an MP.

This begs two important questions. Why has this dramatic change happened? And what difference will it make to people’s lives?

The reasons for this change are many and varied. The Time to Change anti-stigma campaign and the willingness of people such as Stephen Fry, Ruby Wax and Alastair Campbell to talk about their experiences of mental ill health have created a new openness that did not exist even five years ago. More MPs are also now telling us that mental health issues are prominent in their constituency surgeries and the letters they receive – that more people are talking to them about mental health concerns and seeking support for their causes. A combination of encouragement and pressure from constituents to engage more positively with any issue can greatly enhance its importance to MPs.

The difference it will make is harder still to gauge. But signs of progress are evident. With more MPs talking about mental health and championing specific mental health issues, ministers and shadow ministers are raising their game on mental health, too. The government’s commitment to ‘parity of esteem’ for mental health has been made far easier by the universal support it receives from Westminster and this is beginning to change the way policy is made.

Too often, mental health has been an afterthought for policymakers – now it is very clearly being considered when policy is made, and not just in health but in other areas that affect people with mental health conditions. We have a long way to go before we can say with certainty that mental health issues are getting the consideration they deserve from across government and public services, but we are making progress.

And we are also beginning to see mental health issues growing in their prominence in local politics. A growing number of councils now have member champions for mental health through the mental health challenge. Some have used their new public health responsibilities to develop local mental health strategies that seek to improve wellbeing for all and to support people with mental health conditions more effectively. And it is local people talking about mental health issues to councillors that has provided the biggest impetus behind this increased interest in what councils can do to help make their lives better.

The blogs we have published this Parliament Week show how far we have come in raising the political profile of mental health. We know there is much more to do to translate this attention into action that will make a difference to people’s lives. But by building on the support we have and by encouraging MPs, councillors and other in elected office to take mental health issues seriously we can ensure that the voices of people who live with mental ill health are always heard, never ignored and consistently heeded.

Andy Bell is deputy chief executive at Centre for Mental Health.

Follow Andy on Twitter @Andy__Bell__

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