Clegg's plan to improve mental healthcare shows his party still stands up for the young

After years of campaigning for mental health concerns, the Lib Dem leader will announce some bold new reforms that will particularly benefit young people.

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Nick Clegg, who decried the second-class status given to mental health in the NHS in his first ever PMQs question, is to announce some bold new measures in his speech to party conference today.

He wants to campaign to end what he labels “the Cinderella treatment” of mental health services. His improvements to mental healthcare consist of both a government policy announcement, and a party promise.

The immediate government policy is, from April 2015, to guarantee treatment within six weeks, or 18 weeks at the “absolute maximum”. This will also involve £120m funding to improve mental health services.

On top of this, the Lib Dems will put this policy as a pledge on the front page of their manifesto, while also promising to extend extra money to improve mental healthcare in the next parliament. This will be part of their plan to raise an extra £1bn for the NHS budget each year.

Clegg will say:

This is a great liberal cause. Let’s be the first political party to give mental health the status it deserves.

The Lib Dem leadership is making this a red line issue in the event of a future pact with another party, promising to put it “smack bang” on the front of its manifesto, where they admit there is limited space. However, it is highly unlikely either Labour or the Tories would disagree with such a plan, particularly with part of it kicking in as government policy the month before the election next year.

What is significant is to whom such measures appeal. There is a clear emphasis on how they would benefit young people. Clegg will talk a great deal about how poor treatment of mental illness “threatens the opportunities available to hundreds and thousands of our fellow citizens”. There is an emphasis here on those who are starting out their adult lives being held back by a lack of sufficient healthcare in their youth. A spokesperson for the Lib Dem leader said these plans are about “opportunity – particularly for young people”.

Included in the targets is the plan that patients experiencing psychosis for the first time will be seen within two weeks. First-case psychosis patients are almost 100 per cent young people, aged 18 to 25. And Clegg will add that he has already made progress on helping young people, saying “we’re massively expanding talking therapies and transforming the help children can get as they move into adulthood”.

Clegg will also use an anecdote in his speech referring to a group of “young mental health service users” who spoke to him about their experience of care.

This focus on the young is striking. Young people and first-time voters have lost a great deal of trust in the Lib Dems following Clegg’s broken tuition fees pledge. Although it is wrong to say the party is simply chasing young voters using these mental health measures – Clegg has long been a champion of this subject, and young people in general are far less likely to vote anyway – the broader appeal of the party is clear here.

Opportunity for the young, and an early boost from a supportive state, are very much in keeping with what the Lib Dems have long stood for. They lost their way on this in coalition a bit – for example, their universal free school meals policy was too controversial to revive the party. But today’s announcements show an emphasis on opportunity for the young continues to beat at the party’s heart, below the tuition fees-addled surface.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.