THE BLOG

Talking Is Often the Best Therapy of All

09/10/2015 16:55 BST | Updated 09/10/2016 10:12 BST

It's an easy temptation for ministers to make grand statements or use expansive rhetoric when making points or launching initiatives, but sometimes we risk being seen to use sledgehammers to crack nuts. It is refreshing therefore, on World Mental Health Day, to be lending my support to several endeavours which, in different ways, advocate the small and personal things people can do in the pursuit of better mental health.

The Department of Health has long been a champion of talking therapies, that's why we released £460million over 2010-15 to invest in programmes to provide space for people to open up and share their problems without fear of ridicule or discrimination.

Conversation lies at the heart of one of the great mental health successes in this country: more than three million adults have now entered the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme, of which over 1.7million have completed treatment and over 700,000 are in recovery. Waiting times continue to meet and beat targets with over 79% of referrals seen within six weeks against a target of 75%. More than 96% are seen within 18 weeks against a target of 95%. 100,000 people have also been moved off sick pay and benefits as a result of the therapy they have received. These are truly impressive numbers making a massive difference to peoples' lives.

I was lucky enough this week to see first-hand the difference this work makes. At a visit to Oxford's Mind and IAPT services I saw the enthusiasm and care with which these therapies are offered, and also meet people who had benefited from the service. Their different backgrounds had led them to need help in different ways, whether it was through pregnancy and a sense of not being able to cope, or as a result of long-term depression and anxiety. Through conversation, they had moved from a feeling of being alone and without hope, to a process of recovery based on an understanding that their hope for a fuller life could be fulfilled.

Without a doubt, we can say we are world leaders in this form of therapy - one which favours talking over tablets, empathy over medication. I feel a great sense of pride in our health and care system that other countries, such as Sweden - often held up as an exemplar of modern health care - are now trialling similar approaches. We're also using this programme to improve our level of understanding and expertise on mental health within the health and care system, all of which is contributing to more people getting the help they need, when they need it.

On a different scale, a friendly word, a cup of tea or a smile of recognition can have a huge impact to help set someone on the path to recovery. It's the inspiration behind Time to Change's latest campaign where the courage needed for that first conversation is proven to be a catalyst for something good - not a terrifying leap into the unknown. Run by charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, and part-funded by the Department of Health, it encourages us all to consider the small things we can do to help those feeling vulnerable, isolated or otherwise troubled. You can watch Time to Change's moving and powerful film summarising just some of those things on their website.

It was therefore a privilege to speak with Britt Whyatt, who has been closely involved in the campaign and who herself has battled mental health issues, including depression. To listen to Britt was to hear a remarkable woman, whose energy and passion bore little evidence of the problems she had overcome. Her place as a role model to others, and her willingness to help others through being bold about her own past, was inspiring.

Her experience makes the findings of a recent survey conducted by YouGov on behalf of Time to Change even more pertinent. It revealed 43% of us have a compassionate understanding of why people feel awkward sharing mental health problems. Furthermore, it showed 24% of us would feel upset if a person felt unable to confess their worries. So whilst awareness and empathy among our population may be growing, there is clearly more we can do to end the stigma and begin more life changing conversations. Britt's positivity is testament to this spirit of openness.

"Mental health problems are an everyday issue for millions of us," explains Time to Change's Director Sue Baker, "yet our closest family, partners, friends and colleagues can still feel ill-equipped to talk about it. Having an open conversation about mental health is easier than people imagine, and our campaign shows people who have done just that, and the difference it has made to their lives."

But it's not just the clinical arena where advances are being made in person centred care - social work is stepping up to the challenge too. World Mental Health Day will also mark the launch of a new promotional film encouraging top graduates to become mental health social workers. Produced by Think Ahead, the new fast-track graduate programme, the film (which will be available here from Saturday) features social workers, a candid account from someone living with bipolar disorder, and support from a major celebrity.

You might also spot me saying a few words of support in the film, but let me echo Think Ahead's sentiment that while most of us may know someone with mental health problems, it takes someone special to make a difference. In my relatively brief time as Minister for Social Care and Community - during which I have set out my own personal commitment to prioritising improvements in mental health service provision - I'm pleased to say I've already met a lot of special people doing exactly that.

Alistair Burt is the Minister of State for Community and Social Care and Conservative MP for North East Bedfordshire