Parties need to focus on helping people before they reach the NHS
It was really encouraging to see two major announcements on mental health recently by leading Labour and Liberal Democrat political figures.
Both parties are asking an essential question about mental health care: When does care begin? The answer to this question, in my view, is that care doesn’t begin at point of contact of a ‘patient’ with mental health services, but at the earliest point when people become aware that they may have an issue.
The facts and figures on mental ill health are vital to assessing need and the practicalities of our response. They can provide us with clear measurement of progress. If only a quarter of people with diagnosable levels of anxiety or depression – our most common mental health issues affecting 6 million of us a year – are receiving treatment, then we have a challenging base line.
Nick Clegg is asking each part of the NHS to commit to a new ambition for “zero suicides”. He and Norman Lamb have been inspired by the significant progress the city of Detroit achieved to combat the depression caused by industrial decline and have suggested introducing measures which such as ‘safety plans’ for patients once they leave NHS care; dedicated ‘safe from suicide’ teams; as well as working with A&E departments and blue light services to identify high risk groups, and offering training on how to talk to people in distress.
There is no doubt about the level of importance given to preventing suicide in our society and this ambition is very welcome. However, we also need to ask the fundamental question: What can we do to help people before they reach the NHS? After all, three quarters of all suicides are by people unknown to NHS at risk services. We must take a step back and look at sustaining good mental health within our society.
Labour’s Mental Health Task Force covered this wider area by making recommendations across public mental health, early intervention, and increased opportunities for support for those living with mental health problems. This means improving ‘social infrastructure’ and providing children and young people with the skills to help manage their mental health.
At the Mental Health Foundation, we are committed to prevention and early intervention in tackling mental ill health and its causes. We believe we must reframe the debate around mental health care to include approaches that give us the knowledge and tools to take action ourselves, in our homes, in schools and at work.
We all have mental health. With the right tools in place we can ensure that we have the support to stay mentally healthy. This means support for mothers during and after pregnancy, skills for children and young people in schools, support for those in and out of work, and effective tools to help people in later life avoid loneliness and depression.