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The government has failed on mental health – it’s up to Labour to fix it

The Conservatives have consistently let patients down and broken their promises on policy reform.

By Rosena Allin-Khan

This week’s World Mental Health Day, on 10 October, allows us the opportunity to focus on the UK government’s record on mental health. Thirteen years is a significant time in office. We have endured five prime ministers and more health secretaries than you can count.

The cruel fact is that people are being monumentally failed. No matter how much the Cabinet Minister, Mel Stride, attempts to blame people for overreacting, we are gripped by a mental health crisis. I see it in my constituency, and in the A&E department in Tooting where I do my shifts as an NHS doctor.

There are 1.8 million people languishing on waiting lists for mental health treatment. It is costing more than £100m a year to send people hundreds of miles away to see a private specialist. What I’m witnessing first hand are desperate people with mental illness, or parents with their children, presenting to A&E because there is no local alternative.

The cost-of-living crisis further exacerbates this. According to the Office for National Statistics, roughly one in four (24 per cent) of those who are finding it difficult to afford their energy bills, have moderate to severe symptoms of depression, which is nearly three times higher than those who found it easy to pay their energy bills. Just under two thirds (59 per cent) of those who are now spending less on food shopping and essentials, also have moderate to severe symptoms of depression.

It is clear the government is not interested in addressing the huge challenges in mental health. A Freedom of Information (FoI) request I submitted to the Department of Health and Social Care revealed that the Health Secretary and the mental health minister only met with three mental health trusts between October 2022 and the end of June this year, despite the array of failings within in-patient mental health settings.

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Nowhere in Rishi Sunak’s Conservative conference speech last week was there any mention of mental health. Perhaps that’s because he’s planning to ditch the draft Mental Health Bill to which so many people have contributed, and that is so urgently needed.

That bill might have started to address issues such as the disparity between the ways black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people and white people are treated. Black people are five times more likely to be sectioned than white people. The bill might have given a greater voice to patients, and started to repair the damage of the past 13 years. Yet again, Sunak broke his word.

Instead, it seems likely this task will fall to Labour. I want to see genuine parity of esteem between mental and physical health from a Labour government. I support Keir Starmer’s “national mission” to repair the NHS and tackle health inequalities. The question is how?

Yes, more investment is required. We need thousands of new mental health staff in every NHS trust in the UK. We need a robust “mental health in all policies” approach so that each government department has to consider the impact on mental health of its decisions. A decision taken on benefits, or gas prices, or bus fares, can impact people’s mental health. We also need an urgent national review into the quality of care in mental health settings, to unearth any mistreatment or abuse, and deal with it once and for all.

I am proud to be a standard-bearer for patient voices – standing with families, like those in Essex in their fight for a statutory inquiry into thousands of deaths at the Essex Mental Health Trust. But poor standards of care and abuse have been seen across the country, from Edenfield in Manchester to Taplow Manor in Maidenhead. It’s why there must be a full, root-and-branch review of mental health services, with patient voices at its core.

Most of all, the next King’s Speech should have a Mental Health Bill front and centre, placing the patient at its heart. I, however, won’t be holding my breath. This is yet another example of how the only thing we can rely on this Conservative government to do is break its promises and fail patients. The government has not even been able to make good on its commitment to scrap inappropriate out-of-area placements by March 2021. Despite government pledges to end the shameful practice, instead, patients spent roughly 206,000 days in inappropriate out-of-area placements in the 12 months after the deadline passed – a stark statement of Tory failure. The Tories committed to overhauling the Mental Health Act as far back as the 2017 general election campaign. They have failed to do this. The only solution remaining, is for them to make way for a new Labour government to prioritise the rights and dignity of patients and their families.

The theme for World Mental Health Day is mental health as a universal human right. The next Labour government will take that to heart, and deliver world-class mental health services for every citizen, free at the point of use, and based on need. Social justice cannot exist without justice within the healthcare system.

Editor’s note: Spotlight contacted the Department of Health and Social Care to respond on the number of mental health trusts that ministers had visited between October 2022 and the end of June 2023, but they had not replied at the time of publishing.

[See also: Labour should go big and get on with green investment]

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