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8 September 2016updated 29 Jul 2021 12:10pm

Tackling mental health is the policy challenge of our lifetime

We need mental health facilities designed to cater for a mass market. 

By johnny Mercer

Tackling poor mental health in our communities is perhaps the single most important issue for my generation of Members of Parliament.

I’m an MP because I believe that Plymouth, and by extension the wider UK society, must be judged on how we look after our most vulnerable. I care deeply about, and work hard every day, in order to improve the opportunities of those in my City for whom life’s lottery has not been kind. And the truth is, the single biggest factor in doing so in these hardest to reach communities, is getting mental healthcare right.

Progress cannot be denied. ‘Mental health’ now forms a staple piece of any Party leader’s major speeches. We now have targets for treatment times for mental health, and soon it will be illegal for anyone under the age of 16 to be held in police custody in England and Wales.   But scratch below the surface, and we are yet in the shaded foothills of this climb, without having even glimpsed the summit, when it comes to getting mental healthcare right in this country. 

There are graphic, tormenting, tragic cases of mental health neglect in this country still going on. Just last week, a friend of mine told me of her experience at my local hospital. I was struck by the seeming lack of empathy of one of the clinical team. It is as though some still don’t get why it is so important, and mental health’s inherent links to our society, life chances, physical health and poverty. Her case, I’m pleased to say, is at least is rare, but it highlights the issue.

And that’s why the recent report by the Mental Health Foundation and Joseph Rowntree Foundation on the links between poverty and mental health  is so important. These reports are numerous, and perhaps sometimes hard to digest but. if you read one sentence from this report, read this:

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“Across the UK, both men and women in the least-well-off fifth of the population are twice as likely to develop mental health conditions as those on average incomes. Poverty produces an environment that is extremely harmful to individuals’, families’ and communities’ mental health, and the main health impacts of economic downturns are on mental health (including the risk of suicide)…”

A huge part of this fight is having a job, and the Cameron/Osborne administration changed lives in Plymouth. Similarly, some of the “places of safety” and brilliant high-dependent mental health facilities have been transformed over the last six years.

But having a job and looking after the most poorly in our communities is not going to stem the flow.This battle will only ultimately be won through early intervention and “mass-market” mental health treatments and facilities that can deal with a high volume of casework.

Consider all those other distinct policy challenges of our lifetimes, such as huge pressures on A&E; shrinking an ever-increasing welfare state; tackling an ever increasing over-stretch on our Emergency Services; reducing the disability employment gap; increasing home ownership; protecting the NHS which is facing an incredibly challenging future from over-use; providing opportunities for young people and veteran’s care. These are all fundamentally improved by getting mental healthcare right.

But this requires taking it seriously, beyond the sound-bites that will dominate Party Conference season. It requires us to not only talk about parity of esteem between mental and physical health, but fund it too. It also requires Government, businesses, and civil society to work together so that people who are trying to get back into work following a mental health crisis receive the training and experience on the job that they’ll need to prosper..

One of the metrics I will measure myself by in 2020, will be whether there is a parity of provision for physical and mental health in Plymouth. We started some time ago and we have made real progress. We have integrated our health and social care funding streams, as well as integrated our commissioning strategies.  We are intent on de-institutionalising mental healthcare in our City based on the Trieste model in Italy. We are establishing four health and well-being centres across the City that can provide mass-market, early intervention schemes from anything from depression to welfare provision. All because this is the best way to tackle some of the fundamental issues around poverty in our deprived areas. And we want to be judged on how we look after our most vulnerable.

I hope this report will again be read in that context – as another opportunity to get this right. The effects would be profound.

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