Neil Shastri-Hurst is a former British Army Officer, doctor, and Conservative activist in Birmingham.
Mental health remains a taboo subject for most in the United Kingdom. For far too long, it has been a topic at which people shift uncomfortably at dinner parties – not quite sure how to react or what to say. However, it is not only the broader public who have had an uneasy relationship with mental health. Both Westminster and the NHS have failed to tackle the issues at hand.
Funding has slid into anonymity over the years, with it not seen as holding the same importance and urgency as frontline services such as emergency medicine and general practice. However, during the course of the last Parliament, the need to take a more robust approach to the problem has dawned on all parties – though the King’s Fund this week released a new report “Mental health under pressure”, reporting that spending has been “cut in recent years” and that there is “widespread evidence of poor quality care”.
To contextualise the scale of the problem, let us look at a few basic statistics regarding mental health is the UK. One in four people in our country suffer from a mental health disorder, and this number is rising not reducing. Life expectancy for these individuals is almost two decades shorter than those without. Thess figures are even more troubling when examining the mental wellbeing of our children and adolescents. Ten per cent of children aged between five and 16 suffer from mental health problems. That is, on average, three children in every class. Deliberate self-harm afflicts over eight per cent of our young people, with an increase of 68 per cent in hospital admissions related to this. Most shockingly, more than half of adults with mental health disorders were diagnosed in childhood and less than 50 per cent of these were appropriately managed at the time. The long term sequela of mental illness not only results in disability, but costs the economy £105 billion annually.
The divide in mental healthcare in the UK is startling. Liam Fox recently filmed a short documentary exploring the inequality in mental health provision for the BBC. A fantastic service, a form of psychotherapy called Talking Therapies, is being used to help those with mental health issues face their demons and develop coping strategies. The target for time from referral to the first consultation is 28 days. However, across the country, there is a range of more than 90 per cent in achieving this. This can never be acceptable. It not only leads to health inequalities, but the inevitable repercussions lead to social inequalities too.
Compassionate Conservativism has become a buzzword in recent years. It is easy to appreciate and buy into the broad concept it represents. However, having now formed the first Conservative Government in 18 years and with a Labour Party struggling with its own identity, we have a mandate and opportunity to demonstrate what this really means. We should grasp the nettle and show a holistic approach to improving both the health and economic wellbeing of our nation.
In order to achieve this, a number of factors must be considered. Of course an enhanced share of the NHS budget must be assigned to taking on mental health disorders – an important point at a time when there are reports of reductions to come in mental health spending.
This is particularly the case in adolescent and young peoples’ services, where effective early intervention can make significant, and potentially life changing, differences in outcomes. A knock-on effect of enhanced funding will be the improved sense of value of those working within mental health services, which traditionally are chronically underfunded. A monetary injection has the potential of making a career in mental healthcare more attractive. With an increasing burden on the NHS, dedicated and well-trained professionals are an essential part of the solution. However, money alone will not be the answer. The reorganisation of services is also required, not only to ensure that they run in a more efficient and efficacious manner in order to improve access but also to aid in reducing waiting times.
Pleasingly, the Government have already taken steps to address this. In October, Alistair Burt, the Minister for Community and Social Care, announced the Government’s plans for tackling the stigma of mental health and improving the care delivered to children and young people. In collaboration with the charities Time to Change and Young Minds, the largest anti-stigma campaign aims to challenging thinking on mental health in the young and remove the taboo. In order to achieve this, we must communicate with young people in a format and manner in which they are comfortable. The introduction, therefore, of an dedicated online section of the NHS website, designed in conjunction with the very same young people it is designed to help, is something that should be roundly applauded.
The aforementioned Talking Therapies scheme is a prime example of an initiative that should be at the forefront of our thinking. This intervention has been proven to reduce the need for medications or, in those requiring them, speeding up the rate at which they can be ended. Pharmacological agents have a role to play, but alternative options are equally valid. It is particularly important in our young population to make early, positive, and decisive interventions to stave off the negative outcomes that all too often are associated with mental health disorders.
Regarding good mental wellbeing in isolation is short sighted. The long term benefits are substantial: improved school attendance and achievement, leading to better career prospects, plus independence to care for oneself and one’s family, and engaging and contributing to society as a whole. As a result, contentment and self-worth is established, and consequently demands on an overburden health service reduced. Achieving this is not merely done through health policy and funding. It permeates across all departments of government. Policies on housing, welfare, the criminal justice system, education, sports and much more all play a vital role. Forward thinking, radical and innovative approaches are needed for this to be achieved successfully.
For One Nation Tories, like myself, tackling the stigma of mental health and improving outcomes, through pragmatic purposefulness, must be the cornerstone of our raison d’être.