Matt Hancock: mental health priorities for the new health secretary
Matt Hancock has succeeded Jeremy Hunt as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, appointed just a few days after the NHS celebrated its 70th birthday with a 3.4% increased funding settlement.
His appointment followed two significant resignations from the cabinet over the government's Brexit proposals, and while Brexit and Donald Trump's visit to the UK continue to dominate the headlines, this is a crucial time for mental health.
Work is starting on a 10-year plan for the NHS; Professor Sir Simon Wessely is part-way through his review of the Mental Health Act; and there is an urgent need for a sustained, genuinely long-term commitment to improving the mental health of the population.
Mental health at the forefront of the agenda
Lengthy A&E waiting times and delays to operations have historically dominated the headlines about the NHS, but in recent times mental health has begun to feature in our national debates about health and receive more of the attention it deserves.
The increased prominence of mental health is long overdue and must continue, not only in the form of traditional health services but with investment in emerging digital technologies for mental health, and in cross-sectoral preventive action.
Jeremy Hunt was a strong advocate for mental health, and it's important that Matt Hancock continues his work. He needs to ensure that mental health benefits fairly from the extra £20 billion a year the NHS will have by 2023, and as Jeremy Hunt leaves office, it’s not yet clear that it will.
Championing digital innovation
We know from his previous posts at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) that Hancock is a champion of digital innovation. We hope his enthusiasm will now embrace the role that digital technologies can play in preventing and treating mental health problems, and their potential to benefit more people than can be reached by current service models alone.
Support for mental health from all government departments
It's important, too, that he ensures full delivery of the current Five Year Forward View for Mental Health, including championing its cross-government recommendations and finally appointing the long-awaited Equalities Champion needed to help drive change.
These should be key priorities, as many of the roots of good and poor mental health lie in policy areas such as housing, community services, employment, welfare and education. Some people and communities are at significantly higher risk of mental health problems, yet they also face bigger barriers to support.
Other government departments, therefore, need to be made aware of how they can protect and support people's mental health rather than place it at (greater) risk.
The Secretary of State can make these arguments with ministerial colleagues: we need wider engagement with the factors affecting mental health and, fundamentally, a more preventive approach to tackling the high levels of unmet mental health needs that persist in our society.
The forthcoming social care green paper will focus on care and support for older people, but good social care is also vital for supporting people with long-term mental health problems. It is also vital for preventing childhood adversity – a major risk factor for developing mental health problems later in life.
But persistent reductions in local authority budgets have reduced resources for social care, prevention and early intervention – for example, there have been significant reductions in the numbers of health visitors, who provide valuable support to parents and families.
The 2019 Comprehensive Spending Review is an opportunity to begin to turn this around, and the Department of Health and Social Care has just as much interest in doing so as the Department for Communities and Local Government.
Connection between people and across government is as necessary to good mental health as digital connectivity is to effective digital technology. We hope this is something the new Secretary of State for Health will recognise and champion.
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