By Joe Cooper
Away from last week’s announcement that the Prime Minister and Chancellor were both fined for breaching lockdown restrictions, you’d be forgiven for missing a rather different announcement from the Department for Health and Social Care on an issue arguably just as important.
Over the next twelve weeks, the Government will be consulting with patients and industry on how to improve mental health services across England, with the ultimate goal of putting mental health on an equal footing with physical health. This consultation will then be used to inform the new 10 Year Mental Health Plan, alongside a refreshed National Suicide Prevention Plan.
The scale of the ongoing mental health crisis isn’t to be underestimated. Around one in five adults in Britain experienced some form of depression in the first three months of 2021 – over double the figures recorded prior to the pandemic. Meanwhile, figures published last year revealed that NHS waiting times for mental health services varied from anywhere between four to 86 days across parts of England. While the pandemic and proceeding lockdowns will have no doubt exacerbated the situation, the number of people reporting common mental disorders has been on the rise over a number of years. Against this backdrop, the need for further action is clear.
Building on the NHS Long Term Plan, set out by the previous government in early 2019, the consultation forms part of the Government’s programme to “build back fairer” in response to the pandemic and aims to address the levels of health disparities across England.
Particular areas of focus for the consultation include the promotion of positive mental wellbeing, ensuring that signs of ill mental health are identified at an early stage and met with appropriate interventions, improving the quality and effectiveness of mental health treatment, and ensuring adequate training in professional settings to stage necessary interventions.
Mental health reform has played a key pillar in the Government’s health policy, and builds on last year’s long-awaited consultation on Reforming the Mental Health Act, with formal legislation expected to be announced at next month’s Queen’s Speech.
At a time when the Government is facing challenges both domestically with Partygate and the cost of living crisis, and abroad with the ongoing situation in Ukraine, mental health reform provides a platform for the Government to set out a forward-looking, proactive agenda, while also building cross-party consensus.
Health is likely to be one of Labour’s priorities going into the next election too, with Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting regarded as one of the high flyers on the front bench, supported by frontline doctor and Shadow Mental Health Minister Dr Rosena Allin-Khan. Ahead of the next election, getting out in front of the issue and ensuring that the Government has a clear vision for tackling mental health disparities across England will therefore be a priority as we come into the penultimate session of this current parliament.
Expect mental health reform to continue to play a crucial role in the Government’s health agenda in the weeks and months to come.