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As Paul predicted last week, today is the first May Day Monday, by which the Prime Minister seeks to dominate the week’s news with a big speech containing some meaty policy announcements.

The tagline of today’s speech – the “shared society” – hasn’t become the centre of attention (probably fortunately, given it recalls Cameron’s ill-fated “big society”). Instead, the emphasis has largely been on May’s proposals to address mental health. As she puts it:

“I want us to employ the power of government as a force for good to transform the way we deal with mental health problems right across society, and at every stage of life.”

The lack of support for those with mental health problems was one of the Prime Minister’s six examples of the “burning injustices” which she pledged to challenge in her first speech in Downing Street.

She’s certainly being true to her word – with Brexit dominating the agenda, many other leaders might have used it as an excuse to put off major announcements on domestic policy, so she deserves credit for sticking to her theme.

The big question is whether what she announced today will successfully change prospects for those suffering from mental illness and, if so, how quickly?

Put simply, the announcement is composed of three distinct policies:

  1. To challenge stigma around mental health in business and wider society;
  2. To equip schools to identify and help children with mental health problems;
  3. To improve mental health services.

The first of those is a huge challenge on its own. Given that a quarter of people experience mental health problems at some point in their lives, you can measure the impact of stigma by considering what proportion of people you know ever talk about it. In the workplace, in the family home and in wider society there can be vast pressures – or perceived pressures, with just as much force – not to admit to being unwell for fear of being judged or held back as a result.

You can’t fault the Government’s ambition in deciding to take that on – any effort to do so has to start somewhere. But by definition, it will take a long time and a lot of work to succeed – May herself concedes it will “take years” and cannot be achieved by the state alone. Working with employers is certainly a sensible start, and is preferable to simply legislating for the sake of it or splurging a fortune on media campaigns, as previous governments might have tried.

On the second policy, Justine Greening’s Times article offers more detail than May’s speech:

“Every secondary school in the country will be offered free training in mental health support, so staff can better spot the signs of mental health problems that young people might face. We want to see every school train a member of staff in mental health by the end of 2019.

We also want every school in the country to get the best support from their local mental health services, so children needing help can get the right treatment as quickly as possible.”

This is easier to talk about than to do. Remember, schools are already on the hunt for signs of domestic abuse and political or religious extremism, as well as doing their core job of educating children – one trained member of staff in a school of a thousand or more pupils is better than no trained members of staff, but is still only one person.

Most immediately necessary is an improvement in the services available to treat people for mental illness. Appropriately, this is the focus for most of the meat in the Prime Minister’s speech – £15 million for community clinics, £67 million in digital services like online therapy to try to combat waiting times for face-to-face treatment, and a CQC review as well as a new Health green paper to ensure that “by 2021, no child will be sent away from their local area to be treated for a general mental health condition.”

Again, these are positive steps, but only first steps in taking on an issue which the Government estimates costs the economy as much every year as the whole NHS budget. More people trained to identify those who need help, more places for them to access that help and new types of help on offer are all good things to reduce suffering – however, the grim reality is that £82 million will only touch the edges of a vast and under-discussed problem.

The current phase of May’s Government is a tricky one. She has to fulfil the Brexit mandate in order to buy the right to do anything else, but she must also fight for room to define her wider mission or else risk Churchill’s fate of being made redundant by her own victory. In mental health she has found a worthy cause, but right now she only has the freedom to establish a toe-hold in order to do the job properly later on.

24 comments for: Mental health: May takes up a worthy cause, but her limited room to manoeuvre is obvious

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