What has 2016 meant for UK public mental health policy?

22 December 2016

It’s safe to say that 2016 won’t be forgotten any time soon, but underneath the Brexit-dominated headlines there were some important developments (both positive and negative) for public mental health across the UK.

Here’s a review of the most influential things to happen in policy:

The Five Year Forward View for Mental Health was published

In February this year NHS England published its commissioned Mental Health Taskforce report, the Five Year Forward View for Mental health, and its Implementation Plan was produced in July. Although prevention was highlighted as a key priority by the public engagement exercise carried out beforehand, the final taskforce recommendations were not as strong on prevention as was hoped.

This was unfortunate given the strong support from the public for a change of focus and the need to help relieve some of the pressure services are under. As highlighted by our response to the report in February and our response to the implementation plan in July, there are significant opportunities to embed prevention through the sustainably and transformation plans, local planning and the national prevention concordat.

The Westminster government underwent some significant reshuffles

The fallout of the Brexit referendum saw the resignation of David Cameron as Prime Minster and a subsequent reshuffle of the cabinet, with Alistair Burt being replaced by Jeremy Hunt as the Minister responsible for mental health.

In her inaugural speech as Prime Minister, Theresa May acknowledged that "if you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand", indicating it will be a priority issue for her as Prime Minister. In an open letter in The Times, we called on the new Prime Minister to continue the government’s recent prioritisation of mental health. However, several government policy decisions around work, health and welfare continue to impact very negatively on society’s most vulnerable, who are statistically more likely to experience poor mental health.

The opposition party also underwent significant changes after the referendum, with the loss of a shadow minister for Mental Health after Luciana Berger resigned. After several months vacant the role was filled by Barbara Keeley MP.  

London got a new mayor conscious of the needs to improve the capital's mental health

After a hard-fought campaign between 12 candidates, during which mental health featured heavily with pledges to champion mental health by most manifestos, Sadiq Khan was elected Mayor of London in May. The new mayor’s campaign centred on tackling the stigma of mental illness and his aim to improve the availability and support for those with mental health challenges. One of his first acts post-election was to express his support for the Mental Health Foundation’s Mental Health Awareness Week taking place by penning a piece on the importance of relationships for mental health.  

Since May, he has continued to make progress, announcing in December the development of a 'Thrive London' programme of work, similar to Thrive NYC, if implemented this should move forward the mental health agenda around prevention, employment, stigma and suicide prevention.  

Northern Ireland advances plans for a mental health champion

Mental health has secured cross-party support in Stormont and has risen up the public policy agenda in 2016, and the call for a Mental Health Champion to "defend the rights and interests of people living with mental illness" has been heard.

We support the calls for a Mental Health Champion in the hope that this role will be an asset to all of us mental health advocates in Northern Ireland. There are a number of key areas where progress needs to be made but prevention should be their top priority. In addition to the work of a Mental Health Champion political investment is also required. We have set out our top five key asks for the new champion and hope the appointment can take place promptly in 2017 to ensure some real change in individuals and communities.

Wales gets the World’s first Future Generations Commissioner

In February Sophie Howe took up the post as Wales’s first statutory Future Generations Commissioner, following the National Assembly for Wales passing the Well-being of Future Generations Act. The Well-being of Future Generations Act came into full force this year and requires public bodies within Wales to ensure that they make decisions that meet the needs of current and future generations. (The Welsh Government has produced a great YouTube video explaining the Act.) We’re keen to see how protecting mental health is promoted in this pioneering role.

Wales also had the next three-year phase of their 10 year strategy, Together for Mental Health, launched in October.  11 priority areas have been identified and Wales will also be a ‘dementia friendly’ nation and a new dementia strategy is being developed.  Although a comprehensive plan has been developed, there is a challenge in relation to the evaluating and measuring of its progress so we hope that some investments into monitoring and evaluation are made so impact can be measured.

Scotland appoints a mental health minister

After the May elections the Scottish government made the significant decision to appoint its first dedicated Minister for Mental Health, Maureen Watt. Minister Watt has established that her focus will largely look at prevention and early intervention of mental ill health stating “by addressing mental health problems as early as possible, we can prevent people from becoming more distressed, and improve access to services when needed by reducing pressure on the NHS”.

Scotland is also in the process of developing a new 10 year mental health strategy. Although it was initially expected to be published by the end of the year, several key issues with the draft has meant a delay so more engagement can be undertaken to ensure Scotland doesn’t lose its human rights and equity focus .  We hope that next year will bring a comprehensive public mental health strategy for Scotland with a strong prevention focus. 

So overall it’s been a busy year for public mental health with many developments across the UK. However, it will continue to be an uphill battle to get prevention and early intervention prioritised in the face of the ongoing crisis care shortfalls. We will continue call for an all government approach to championing mental health in 2017, to ensure this important issue is not overshadowed by Brexit negotiations.