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9 January 2017updated 04 Sep 2021 7:11pm

Theresa May’s mental health pledge should start with fair funding

The Prime Minister is to set out her vision for improving the nation’s mental health. The government must grasp this opportunity.

By Craig Thorley

On Monday, the Prime Minister is expected to make a major speech on mental health, in which she will promise to provide more training for educators and employers.

But the lights on the dashboard have been flashing for some time.

We now live in a society where one in four people will experience a diagnosable condition during their lifetime. These can range from common conditions such as depression and anxiety to more severe and enduring conditions such as schizophrenia.

Mental health problems among young people are at record highs, with self-harm among under-18s increasing by more than 50 per cent between 2010 and 2015. In 2015, there were over 6,000 deaths recorded as suicides, marginally below the 2013 level, which saw the highest rates since 2001. Presenteeism caused by mental health problems – when people continue to turn up to work despite being ill – costs the UK economy £15bn a year in lost productivity.

How have we got here?

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NHS mental health services have always been chronically underfunded compared to those designed to improve physical health. Mental health accounts for 23 per cent of NHS activity, but receives funding equivalent to just half that proportion. While hugely important, underfunding alone cannot account for the current crisis.

Another factor is the rapid pace of change that characterises modern society. Globalisation has changed what it means to be happy and healthy, either at work, school or home. Both government and society have, though, failed to keep pace with this rapid change.

As a result, schools find themselves on the frontline of supporting young people as more of their lives are played out online –  81 per cent of head teachers reported an increase in the number of pupils affected by cyberbullying in 2016.

Employers have often failed to protect employees overburdened by stress, which now accounts for one third of all work-related illness. And the government has failed to protect those who are suffocated by low-pay, poor housing and an uncertain future. Its Work Capability Assessment has been linked to increases in suicide and mental health problems among participants

So where do we go from here?

Government must lead the fight back and reassert the importance of our health and happiness within modern society. There are things they can do now.

For children and young people, this should include improving prevention and early intervention services in schools. IPPR has called on government to ensure every secondary school has access to an on-site NHS mental health worker for one day per week, costing £600m over ten years.

For adults, this should include shifting responsibility for sick pay onto employers who fail to help employees with mental health problems back into work after a period of sickness absence.

But most of all, government must facilitate a culture change across society, whereby mental health is recognised as being tied up in all parts of our every day lives. Society has signalled the importance of mental health to government for years. Government must now signal back that it will act.

Recent initiatives are not sufficient. “Parity of esteem” between mental and physical health was enshrined in law in 2012, and yet since then the gap in funding between the two has increased. Government has pledged to invest £1.4bn in children and young people’s mental health services, but too much of this has instead been used to fill gaps elsewhere in the NHS finances. In 2015, the Five Year Forward View for Mental Health set out 58 recommendations for reform, but these are yet to be implemented.

The Prime Minister must grasp this opportunity to recognise that our mental health should be a national priority, not a “nice to have”. Her government can, if it chooses, reverse this mental health crisis and set England on a path to showing the world how to protect and promote people’s mental health in the modern age. The time is now.

Craig Thorley is a Senior Research Fellow at IPPR. He tweets at @craigjthorley.

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