The Conservatives must not forget about mental health

Danny Bowman explains why Boris Johnson needs to continue to make mental health a priority.

Danny Bowman
On 16 August 2019 21:54

As the sun set on Theresa May’s premiership only a couple of weeks ago today, I thought of the words she spoke on the steps of that famous address of 10 Downing Street. The words that brought a glimmer of hope to the thousands of individuals and their families experiencing the tribulations of poor mental health. That moment in 2016 was instrumental in shining a light on our crumbling mental health system and the difficulties faced by thousands of people everyday in accessing it. It enabled a recognition of the need to not only talk about mental health but to start and act on it to transform services.

We have made some progress with numerous promises of reform and extra spending commitments being made to put mental health services on par with physical health services. I commend Theresa May for her efforts on mental health and congratulate her on laying the foundations for recovery, but now we must deliver the promises made and change our mental health system for good.

Our new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson needs to put some of his famous optimism to work and accelerate the promises and plans made by the past administration on mental health.

Even after all the progress that we have made, I still see and hear of the savage inequalities faced by those experiencing poor mental health. The common barriers of inadequate care, the lack of interconnectivity between services, lengthy waits for treatment, limited support in the workplace and misunderstandings in our education system are still faced by too many people across Britain.

Starting with the relationship between our education system and mental health we have heard the pledge from the past administration to invest £300 million into developing increasing levels of support in our schools. This investment was welcomed, but we know that the new mental health support teams in schools funded by this investment are too slow in being rolled out and will miss some of the pupils experiencing difficulties now.

It has been noted that only 20-25% of areas will be covered in the next five or so years and it won’t be till the year 2025 that all schools will have a designated mental health lead. To put this into context, if a child is 10 years old now as in unlucky enough to be in one of the last remaining schools to see a mental health lead implemented in 2025, it won’t matter as that child will have already left school. I would encourage Boris Johnson to work with Gavin Williamson, the new education secretary and Matthew Hancock, health and social care secretary, in accelerating the progress on this.

There is a similar issue being faced in our higher education institutions which I discovered in my recent research for the political think tank parliament street. In my recent research I found that 67,504 students accessed counselling services equating to 1 in 16 in the last academic year (2018/2019). The research also showed the huge variations between different universities when it came to waiting times to access support. It was further noted that Russel Group universities remained some of the highest for the total number of students either attempting to access therapy or having accessed it.

In conversation with students, it is evident that university mental health support is inadequate and further steps need to be taken by the government in making sure that all students get the support they need on campus especially during examination periods. This is made even more urgent when we look at the growing suicide crisis amongst university students.

The former Education Secretary, Damien Hinds set up a new taskforce to address some of the pressures leading to poor mental health amongst students particularly in transitioning through different educational routes. Although the taskforce is welcome, the new Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson needs to deliver clear action to prevent any student reaching crisis point.

The most obvious barrier that still needs to be removed is the long waiting times in our NHS with children and young people still waiting too long to access appropriate mental health provision. Access to treatment for young people experiencing a mental health crisis remains a great blockade to them realising their promise and moving forward in their lives.

In a recent piece of research I undertook for parliament street think tank, I found that over 6000 children and adolescents were waiting for psychological therapies as of June 2018. The average waiting time collated from the research was over three months, far from the former administrations aim of four weeks outlined in a green paper released in December 2017 on ‘Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision’. Our Health and Social Care Secretary needs to make sure that the promise made in this report to reduce waiting times to 4 weeks in realised in this parliament and allow the thousands of young people to get well and live happy lives.

For the young people who are lucky enough to access provision, there is another risk when they turn 18 years old. It has been noted that around 50% of young people lose access to their mental health care at the age of 18. After building up a relationship with their practitioner suddenly they find themselves being told that they are being transferred to adult services only to find the support is not available. In a recent BBC News report, a young boy named Thomas outlined how he was told that he would lose his mental health support at 18 with no other help in sight. In the video you could see the anxiety and stress generated by the possibility of him losing his support and the pain in his Mum’s eyes at the thought of the risks it could pose to her son, who had prior to this piece had spoken about ending his own life.

It is the new governments moral responsibility to enforce expansion of children and adolescent mental health services to the age of 25. This will enable a smoother transition between children and adolescent services into adult care if needed. Although, I believe by allocating this extra time to young people as they have done in Australia already, we would witness a reduction is young people needing further care beyond the age of 25.

Finally, I would like to touch on the side-effects informed by my research that are caused by the limited levels of provision available to people experiencing a mental health crisis which I believe further stresses the need for this administration to make it a priority.

Our accident and emergency departments have faced an increasing number of attendances from people demonstrating either self-harm or suicidal thinking as their chief complaint. In recent research I found that there had been 30,000 attendances at accident and emergency departments of people demonstrating self-harm or suicidal thinking as their chief complaint between August 2017 and July 2018.

In addition to this and informed by Matthew Scott, police and crime commissioner for Kent who has done an enormous amount of great work in this area, I undertook an investigation into the time the police spend supporting vulnerable people with mental health problems.

The research I did on this showed that over 400,000 police incidents were labelled as ‘mental health’ telling a narrative of people with mental health problems reaching crisis point with no other place to turn other than to the police or an accident and emergency department. This is the reality, these are the side-effects of the mental health crisis and this only further exemplifies the need for the new Prime Minister to make mental health a key priority.

I have mentioned only a small proportion of the steps that should be taken by the new Prime Minister and his team on mental health illustrating how far we still need to go on mental health and why it should be a priority for this administration. The Prime Minister needs to finish what Theresa May started by delivering and seeing the smooth implementation of these vital changes in mental health.

It may seem like a never-ending cycle of me going on about mental health, but that’s because I fundamentally believe in our ability to solve this crisis. We can improve the lives of thousands of people across this country facing the tribulations of mental illness and allow them to realise their promise. With the political will, with optimism and with all of us working together,  Britain can be a world leader on mental health.


Danny Bowman is Head of Campaigns for leading UK think tank, Parliament Street.

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