Mental health policy: three key issues from the past 12 months

As a Politics graduate with lived experience of mental health challenges, the opportunity to be the Policy Intern at the Mental Health Foundation was a placement that was perfect for me both personally and professionally.

The Mental Health Foundation’s public mental health and prevention focus have shaped both my academic and professional interests, particularly with regards to the mental health of children and young people. Through addressing the root causes of poor mental health, we not only avoid strain on an overstretched and underfunded NHS but we more importantly stop mental health problems in their tracks before they cause significant distress.

Here are three key issues that I’ve picked up on in the past 12 months:

1. Digital mental health

I have been extremely fortunate to be a part of the eMEN project - a European initiative to develop the use of digital technologies to support mental health.

For me, witnessing this truly revolutionary approach to public mental health and prevention has been inspiring. As well as overcoming barriers to treatment such as long waiting lists and social anxiety, promoting wellbeing applications for the smartphone generation is a positive step in normalising discussions around mental health and overcoming the stigma attached by promoting the notion that everybody has mental health.

When I was lucky enough to attend a project conference in Belfast, I witnessed some of the most advanced developments in e-mental health. Seeing the potential for exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy to support people who have specific phobias delivered through virtual reality was extremely exciting. I was also fascinated to hear that eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing therapy for people who have experienced trauma could be delivered digitally. Interventions such as this could signal a revolution in mental health treatment.

2. The role of education in children and young people’s mental health

Another highlight was working on the Mental Health Foundation’s submission to the inquiry into the role of education in children and young people’s mental health. I was able to integrate my own research interest into the response, stressing how a young person’s body image can be a risk factor for developing mental health issues.

The collaboration between the Health Committee and the Education Committee during this inquiry highlighted the importance of cross-party and cross-departmental collaboration in order to progress the public mental health agenda. Embedding mental health across all policy areas ensures an integrated approach towards prevention, and avoids us treating ‘mental health’ as a separate and intimidating beast. This can only be progressive for the public mental health agenda.

3. NICE eating disorder guidelines

In January this year, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) opened a consultation on the reviewed guidelines for the recognition and treatment of eating disorders.

Having not reviewed the guidelines since 2004, this represented a real turning point in the way that this highly stigmatised mental health problem is viewed. As eating disorder prevention is a keen research focus of mine, I relished the opportunity to be involved in this consultation. It was personally satisfying to see a commitment to early intervention, rather than waiting for the physical complications of this mental health problem to be at crisis point.

Remaining challenges

Although there have been some exciting developments in mental health policy over the past year, there is still one major hurdle that we are yet to overcome. For years, stakeholders have been recommending that the Government should appoint a cabinet minister for mental health. This is yet to come into fruition, even though Labour’s have an equivalent in their shadow cabinet. To have an individual in the cabinet that is accountable for mental health policy would accelerate the progress that is being made.

Despite the lack of a minister for mental health, the current government made many commitments regarding mental health policy around the time of the snap election this year. A review of the Mental Health Act, a green paper on the mental health of children and young people, and further investment in services are just a few of the areas that we need to keep an eye on. It will be interesting to see if the Conservatives deliver on these commitments despite competing agendas such as Brexit.