Mental Health Foundation’s Director of England, Alexa Knight, reflects on the 2023 Conservative and Labour party conferences and the implications for public mental health.
At the Mental Health Foundation, we work with politicians from across the political sphere to make the case for better public mental health. We've just been at the Conservative and Labour annual party conferences, where we met with local and national elected representatives, delegates, third sector partners and others. We ran our own events, opening up spaces to allow people to talk about mental health in relation to their experiences of financial pressures, Black motherhood and racism, and seeking asylum. Hearing these powerful testimonies led to a rich and fruitful discussion with policy makers and partners.
But the conferences are also about hearing from politicians as they set out their policies, and to take in the mood music around the hall. Here are our takeaways from this year:
Where do we see progress happening?
- Mental health was being discussed everywhere at fringe meetings and in roundtable discussions, and increasingly by non-health organisations – those focused on climate change, education, housing, and sexual health, as well as the finance sector. There’s a growing acknowledgement of the impact of the mental health cuts across all areas of life, with a realisation among many that they need more support to address the mental health needs of the communities they serve.
- Prevention was in the spotlight, with PM Rishi Sunak announcing a plan to phase out the sale of cigarettes – arguably the biggest public health intervention in a generation. Smoking increases the risk of poor mental health. Far from being a stress relief, it exacerbates existing mental health conditions, so this policy would be a major step forward for mental health as well as physical health. Labour also talked about moving to a preventative focus in health. There were some bold contributions from think tanks, notably proposals from cross-party think tank Demos for a ring-fenced prevention budget, as well as our own sector-wide cross-cutting proposals for a Mentally Healthier Nation.
- Mental health made it into the speech not just of the Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting, but of party leader Keir Starmer, with mental health support in every school and hubs in every community promised alongside a “guarantee” of mental health treatment when it’s needed.
What improvements do we think are needed?
- There remains a lack of joined-up thinking about the wider determinants of mental health. For example, proposals from the Conservatives to reduce the number of people claiming sickness benefits didn’t consider the causes of greater ill-health, such as anxiety caused by the cost-of-living crisis, or ways to support people back into work. A mental health impact assessment tool for all government policy would be a step towards a more joined-up approach.
- While Labour’s prevention commitment is very welcome, there’s no detail yet about what that might mean in practice. We have yet to see the bold action needed to deliver a truly preventative approach, building mental health in all our communities.
What did we find the most concerning?
Perhaps most distressing was some of the rhetoric used by politicians, particularly around migration and gender. These are complex issues, and parties and individuals will hold strong views. But using language that demonises anyone, particularly groups that are already vulnerable to poor mental health, is never acceptable.
When it comes from our political leaders, it is reckless.
The quality of public discourse affects people’s mental health because we all need to feel safe in order to thrive.
It’s likely that we will have a general election in the next year.
As the political world moves into campaigning mode, we will continue to argue for a holistic, cross-government approach that puts prevention of mental illness and the creation of mentally healthy communities at its heart. And we’ll strive for more support for those most at risk, to work towards our vision of good mental health for all – not just for some.
Policy and advocacy
Our policy and advocacy work calls on national and local governments to reduce the factors known to pose a risk to people’s mental health, enhance those known to protect it and create the conditions needed for people to thrive.
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