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The Conservatives have created a mental health crisis

Britain has become more unwell, with millions languishing on waiting lists – Labour will focus on prevention to fix it.

By Abena Oppong-Asare

As we mark Mental Health Awareness Week, we must confront the stark reality that many face. “It has never been as bad as it is today.” I hear this time and time again from family members who work in our NHS mental health services. But I hear it even louder from the patients, families and NHS front-line staff who I have been fortunate enough to meet since September last year, when I was appointed shadow minister for women’s health and mental health.

Under this Conservative government, Britain has become more unwell, with millions languishing on waiting lists and far too many living in conditions of poverty, poor housing and financial insecurity, which all worsens mental health. Currently, around 1.9 million people are waiting for NHS mental health treatment in England, and in the past 12 months nearly 40,000 children experienced a wait of more than two years, according to research from the children’s commissioner, Rachel de Souza. People experiencing an acute mental health crisis spend days in A&E departments due to the limited dedicated support for them outside of hospitals.

This failure not only scars the lives of millions – it creates a huge financial burden. A recent Centre for Mental Health report estimates the cost of mental ill health on society at £300bn a year. This is nearly twice as big as NHS England’s annual budget.

In the face of this crisis, what do we get from the government? We get short-sighted decisions; the scrapping of a ten-year Mental Health and Wellbeing Plan; the shelving of long overdue reforms to the Mental Health Act, despite explicit promises in its 2017 and 2019 manifestos. It is incomprehensible to me that legislation that would help people at their most unwell has been de-prioritised.

The Conservatives’ approach to mental health is not only characterised by a lack of investment, de-prioritisation and broken promises, but increasingly by a reckless tendency to blame everyone else, including health professionals and patients themselves. This is a shameless attempt to explain away yet another policy failure by making a culture war of mental health and the so-called sicknote culture. I am gobsmacked that the government is using the final months of this parliament to erode the strides we have made as a nation on stigma.

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Walking around parliament, I bump into MPs of all shades, including senior Conservatives, who are exasperated by the government’s approach to mental health. Just a few weeks ago Dan Poulter MP, who is an NHS psychiatrist and a former Conservative health minister, joined the Labour Party because of what he sees every day.

We cannot go on like this. If given the opportunity to serve after the next general election, Labour will prioritise and act on mental health. We have three key ambitions: reform the Mental Health Act; improve mental health services; and take a prevention-focused cross-government approach to tackle the social determinants of mental health.

What does this mean in practice? We will reform the Mental Health Act in our first King’s Speech. This will end the inappropriate detention of people with learning disabilities and autism who do not have other psychiatric disorders. It will tackle the racial inequalities in mental health, where black patients are four times more likely to be detained than white patients. It will remove prisons and police cells as places of safety under the Act, to ensure people experiencing a crisis are supported in an appropriate setting. And it will give mental health patients more of a say and greater control over their own care.

At the same time, we are realistic. We know that reform of the Mental Health Act will not fix everything. We need to improve mental health services, especially for children and young people.

As announced by Keir Starmer, Labour will recruit 8,500 more mental health staff to cut waiting lists, introduce specialist mental health support for every school and deliver an open-access mental health hub for young people in every community.

I know from my previous role working with the shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves and the shadow Treasury team that fiscal responsibility is key. The sums must add up, and this is no different. We will deliver this plan by abolishing tax loopholes for private equity fund managers and tax breaks for private schools. We will be ambitious with the targets we set ourselves – for example, we have committed in our health mission to reverse the rising trend in the rate of lives lost to suicide.

Labour will need to address the staffing challenges overseen by this government. Thousands are leaving the NHS or planning to leave. They are burnt out, exhausted and stretched to breaking point. Mental health is the discipline with the highest vacancy rate, at a staggering 11.7 per cent. This impacts patient care, worsens staff morale and results in an ever-rising bill for hiring temporary workers (over £10bn a year across all NHS services). Staff are the jewel in the NHS’s crown – we must do better by them. I am proud that Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, has strongly supported the NHS practitioner health programme, which provides mental health and well-being care for NHS staff.

We cannot separate physical and mental health – they do not live in isolation. The cross-government approach taken in Labour’s Child Health Action Plan means that alongside the explicit commitment to end the crisis in child mental health services, other elements can contribute. For example, Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, has pledged breakfast clubs in every primary school so we have well-fed, healthy and happy children.

Critically, we must start treating mental health as a cross-service issue, involving mental health services, the ambulance service, police, schools and many others. In my constituency of Erith and Thamesmead, I see countless examples of the impact that housing and employment make on mental health. Luciana Berger is currently leading a review for Labour that will provide recommendations for cross-government working, so that we can tackle a range of determinants to improve the well-being of the nation. If elected, Labour will develop the first long-term, whole-government plan for improving mental health outcomes, making early intervention a reality, and broadening the range of services to those with severe mental health conditions.

Less talk, more action – Labour will deliver Mental Health Act reform in the first King’s Speech, improve mental health services with fully costed investment and take a bold prevention-focused, cross-governmental approach.

This article first appeared in a Spotlight print report on Healthcare, published on 17 May 2024. Read it in full here.

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