Ed Miliband is to be commended today for taking the bull by the horns and speaking in such a public way about mental health.
Hot on the heels from the very public declarations in the House of Commons by the Labour MP Kevan Jones and Conservative MP Charles Walker about their own struggles with depression and obsessive compulsive disorder respectively, it is heartening one of the last great taboos within 21st-century British is at last getting the attention it so desperately needs.
In his speech, Miliband made clear we had both a moral obligation to support the most vulnerable in our society, a) because it is the right thing to do, but also b) because failing to tackle mental health problems at an early stage stores too much trouble up far later down the line - crime, drug taking and greater pressures on the NHS to name just a few.
What was heartening though was the way in which the Labour leader also made clear the economic case for tackling it.
In 2010, the Centre for Mental Health estimated the cost of mental ill health in England is now £105.2 billion a year, a figure which includes the costs of health and social care for people with mental health problems, lost output in the economy - for example from sickness absence and unemployment - and the human costs of reduced quality of life.
The case for addressing the problems of mental health is therefore a crucial part of any economic stimulus and should be at the heart of plans to grow UK PLC.
Following Miliband’s announcement in his speech of a new taskforce on mental health, there are three particularly key areas it must now address if we are to properly tackle the mental health crisis we now face as a country.
From the perspective of those who suffer, work is, as explained by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, good for mental health, providing as it does a source of contact with others, structure and meaning to the day and providing a sense of self-worth. The problem, therefore, is not necessarily work but the support provided by employers themselves.
According to research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, only a quarter of respondents to a survey they carried out felt their employer and colleagues encouraged staff to talk openly about mental health problems and just 37% thought tht their employer supported employees with mental health problems well.
If we are to encourage a greater sense openness in the workplace, employers need much better support to understand mental health problems so they can establish how best to support their employees to maximise their productivity at work.
The flip side of this, however, is that those suffering need to have the cloud of uncertainty that lingers over them at work removed altogether. Providing legal cover to someone that they cannot be sacked on the basis of a mental health problem would be a start. This should be matched also by an end of all talk, as contained within the Beecroft Report, of the introduction of no fault dismissals.
This includes George Osbrone’s ludicrous proposal employees should be able to ditch their employment rights in return for shares in the company they work for. Just imagine for a second someone with a mental health condition feeling pushed into losing their employment rights in this way. How would that help them feel more confident to seek help from their employer?
The Health Service
In his speech, Miliband went on to argue GPs and other frontline health workers need a much better skills set to identify mental ill health, then provide the services and support needed as swiftly as possible.
In its report on the implications for mental health of the government’s health and social care reforms, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Mental Health has warned:
“GPs may not possess enough knowledge of mental health problems to commission mental health services effectively [whilst] there is a need to ensure mental health features prominently in local health plans, so that people with mental health problems are encouraged to play a part in local decision making processes, and that public health professionals understand that mental health sits in their remit.”
With Labour pledged to repeal the government’s unpopular health reforms it must ensure mental health is intertwined in the very fabric of the NHS, given the status, parity of esteem and seriousness given to treating heart conditions and cancers to name just a few. For example, in January, shadow health secretary Andy Burnham noted the last government’s 18-week waiting targets never applied to mental health. This should be changed.
Finally, but by no means least, society as a whole - that’s me, that’s readers of this blog, that’s everyone out there – needs to accept its fair share of responsibility, get itself clued up and understand there is no shame in suffering a mental health condition and it is as every bit as serious as a physical condition. The sad fact remains, though, that however much progress has been made we still don’t get mental health as we should.
Earlier this year, a poll by ComRes for ITV’s “Tonight” programme found 82% of people surveyed agreed with the statement “I think that people who have depression are often embarrassed about admitting that they have the illness”. Why is that we might wonder? Well perhaps because of the backlash they received from celebrities as highlighted by Miliband but also by those we live with and care for day in and day out.
According to research by the mental health charity, Mind, a partner is four times more likely to leave someone because they have a mental health difficulty as compared to a physical disability; and 27% of sufferers report facing discrimination, with one saying:
“When I was a teenager, I spent time in a child psychiatric unit and when I came out, the kids near where I lived found out. Over the next few years, every time I left the house I would be attacked and have abuse shouted at me. As a result, I started to go out less and less. This led to over a decade of having no social life.”
Tackling mental health problems in these ways may not provide the kind of political benefits that, for example, opening a new hospital does, but if we as a society are to be judged by how we treat our most vulnerable, we have a responsibility to provide the best possible care and support to those facing desperate times.
Miliband’s speech is a good start, but it should be exactly that, a start to something much bigger and better for those who find themselves suffering in silence.