By Andy Bell
The Government recently announced in a ministerial statement that it was abandoning its promised ten-year mental health and wellbeing plan as well as plans for some other health conditions and a white paper on ‘health disparities’. In their place, there will be a ‘major conditions’ strategy which will include mental health alongside five other areas, with a much shorter time horizon of two to five years.
This is disappointing at a time when we need a strategic and whole of government approach to mental health more than ever. The prevalence of mental health difficulties has been rising for at least a decade, and the surge in distress brought about by the pandemic shows no signs of easing during the cost of living crisis.
It is now twelve years and counting since the last UK Government mental health strategy – No Health without Mental Health – was published. And it seems our wait for a replacement will be longer still. This matters because our mental health is about more than our mental health services, as vitally important as they are. It’s about what happens in communities, schools, workplaces, and more. And it’s affected by government policies across departments, including social security, justice and education. With a long-term commitment to improving mental health and tackling the things that put people’s wellbeing at risk, government could make a lasting difference.
In the absence of a mental health plan, there are still some essential actions to be taken that will have long-term benefits. First, the Government can ensure that it funds NHS and social care mental health services adequately to meet growing demand. Second, it can fulfil its promise to reform the Mental Health Act, revising the draft bill in the light of the recent Joint Parliamentary Committee report and ensuring that the proposed changes are fully resourced. And third, the Government can make good on its commitment to adopt a ‘mental health policy test’ to ensure future decisions are made with the public’s mental health in mind.
In the meantime, the proposed new major conditions strategy can address some longstanding inequalities and inequities in the treatment of mental and physical health. The strategy is a chance to get to grips with the 15-20 year life expectancy gap faced by people living with mental illness. The Government could set a target to close the health gap within a decade and take decisive action to achieve improvements across the system.
Likewise, the proposed strategy is a chance to offer far better emotional and psychological support to people with long-term conditions. Our Ask How I Am report with National Voices set out the support people want and how that could be implemented in practice. That requires both the provision of tailored emotional support for people with long-term conditions and reforms to how health services work to ensure people’s needs are met more holistically.
The nation’s mental health needs and deserves a clear and comprehensive national plan. It cannot be left to chance. We will continue to call for such a plan, and in the meantime make the case for essential actions across government and civil society that will make a difference.