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Theresa May and the burning issue of mental health


Helen Cutteridge responds to Prime Minister May's speech that highlighted the issue of mental health provision, particularly for young people.


On the 9th January, Prime Minister May gave her first speech of 2017. After laying out her policies and thoughts on Brexit, the divide between rich and poor, and the general state of the country, she said the phrase: “I want to turn to one of those burning injustices in particular – the burning injustice of mental health and inadequate treatment that demands a new approach from government and society as a whole.”

Preach Sista!

PM May gave the lay of the land. One in four adults will have a common mental disorder at any one time, and 1 in 10 children have a diagnosable condition. Children with diagnosable conditions are four times more likely to develop drug addictions, and 20 times more likely to end up in prison. The social and economic cost of this is approximately £105 billion pounds a year.

She praised the work that charities and civil societies, including churches, have done to raise awareness and give a voice to those who struggle with their mental health, then went on to explain her six-fold plan to “build upon the success” of the work that charities and civil societies have already done. These were:

  1. Piloting new approaches to mental health support especially in schools. Offering more training for teachers, social workers and other professionals to identify and support children and young people who are struggling. This includes the agencies working closer with the NHS. Ofsted and the CQC will begin the conversation on how to work together to ensure CAMHS are “held to account for performance.” May acknowledged the trauma hundreds of young people go through by being sent away from their family for treatment, and pledged that by 2021, “No child will be sent away from their local area to be treated for general mental health conditions”.
  2. More support in the workplace for those struggling with their mental health, including review discrimination laws, tackling substance abuse and supporting those unemployed because of mental health problems.
  3. An additional £15 million available for groups, organisations, charities and churches to continue their support and preventative work with those in their community.
  4. An investment of £67.7millon in to “digital mental health services, including support groups, counselling, triage and “clinically-assisted therapy” all over the internet, reducing waiting times significantly.
  5. Working with GP’s to identify and tackle the debt that a mental illness can lead to, which can lead to worsening mental health and financial difficulties.
  6. Publishing the Cross-Government Suicide Prevention Strategy looking at reducing suicide for those most at risk, such as men aged 30-59, the group with the highest rate of suicide. Stating that on average 13 people commit suicide each day May impressed upon us the importance of this work.

In addition to these six steps the Prime Minister promised to hold the NHS to account for the extra £1 billion it was given last year for investing in mental health. The government has also promised to continue to raise awareness for mental illness, “for funding, research and technology investment.”

The Prime Minister claimed that these are “just the first steps in our plan to transform our approach to mental health in this country……. This is a historic opportunity to right a wrong, and give people deserving of compassion and support the attention and treatment they deserve.”

To know that our NHS is going to be held account for this is promising, as is the Government’s statement that they will invest in preventative work, that Ofsted will be reviewing schools and CAMHS as well as overseeing partnership working between the two. Our mental health services are at a crisis point, service users are disillusioned, and many struggle to find support until it’s too late.

The bigger question however is: will we see an actual change? Call me sceptical, but the “Shared Society” that the PM shared with us sounds a lot like the “Big Society” that David Cameron tried to roll out in 2010. The criticism at the time for this policy was that the pressure and work was put onto the private sector, faith groups, charities and community organisations whilst the government cut funding for many local services, including youth work.

In her speech, May seemed to lay out similar plans. The main content seemed to be about conversations, encouraging communication, and lots of plans. The £15 million promised to enable organisations to continue their support might seem like a lot, but when spread across 48 counties that number seems incredibly unsubstantial. When May makes the pledge that by 2021, “no child will be sent away from their local area to be treated for general mental health conditions” the question raised is: what does she mean by 'general mental health conditions'?

I want to be hopeful, I want to believe that this will make a difference, and I firmly believe raising awareness and challenging stigma does make a difference. Talking openly about the high suicide rates of middle-aged men is so important, considering alternative support and reducing waiting lists would be a huge step. The £67.7 million promised is not a small number, and something that our sister charity SelfharmUK would benefit from, as well as other incredible organisations such as Childline who already offer online counselling.

During her time as Home Secretary, Theresa May raised awareness around mental health, in particular challenging the police response to those who were struggling. Since then, May claims there has been a reduction: 80% of people who have been detained under the 136 mental health act have no longer been incarcerated but instead have been taken to a mental health facility and have received appropriate care.

In many ways this is a time of great change in our country. And maybe now is the time for a change in how our society responds to mental health, in how individuals access the correct support with limited waiting times and how prominent and available preventative work is in order to enable those numbers to drop. My hope is that our current situation – with 1 in 10 young people suffering from a mental condition – will become a thing of the past. My other hope is that this policy enables churches, youth workers and school’s workers to be better equipped to support young people, that they aren’t alone in this and that they are able to work with schools, CAMHS and other organisations more closely to make a real change.

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