Saturday, November 3, 2012

Political action on mental health

It is very welcome that Ed Miliband is speaking in such a public way about mental health. One of the last taboo subjects is getting the political attention it deserves. He made it clear that as a nation we had both a moral obligation to support the most vulnerable in our society and importantly also made clear the economic case for tackling it.

The Scottish mental health charity SAMH calculates that three in every ten employees will have a mental health problem in any year, making mental health the dominant health problem among people of working age. The business case for tackling this is overwhelming with output losses of over £2bn last year or £950 per employee.

Following Miliband’s announcement in his speech of a new taskforce on mental health, there are some key areas Labour must address if we are to properly tackle the mental health crisis he describes.

It is widely accepted that work is good for mental health, providing a source of contact with others, structure, meaning to the day and providing a sense of self-worth. The problem is not work itself, but the support provided by employers. According to a recent CIPD survey only a quarter of respondents felt their employer and colleagues encouraged staff to talk openly about mental health problems and just 37% thought their employer supported employees with mental health problems well. So employers need more help and we need stronger, not Beecroft weaker, employment rights to protect workers suffering from this condition.

GPs and other frontline health workers need a better training to identify mental ill health, then provide the services and support needed as swiftly as possible.The Westminster All Party Parliamentary Group on Mental Health has warned:

“GPs may not possess enough knowledge of mental health problems to commission mental health services effectively [whilst] there is a need to ensure mental health features prominently in local health plans, so that people with mental health problems are encouraged to play a part in local decision making processes, and that public health professionals understand that mental health sits in their remit.”

While that comment refers to the position in England, the same applies in Scotland. It is also unacceptable that waiting list targets rarely include mental health services. According to research by Mind, a partner is four times more likely to leave someone because they have a mental health difficulty as compared to a physical disability; and 27% of sufferers report facing discrimination.

Political action on mental health may not provide the kind of publicity opening a new hospital does. However, if we as a society are to be judged by how we treat our most vulnerable, we have a responsibility to provide the best possible care and support to those facing difficult times. Ed Miliband’s speech is a welcome start, but it must lead to something bigger and better for those who find themselves suffering in silence.

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