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Thanks For Raising The Issue Of Mental Health, Prime Minister, Now Invest In The NHS So It Can Improve

09/01/2017 13:32
BEN STANSALL via Getty Images

Whilst everyone will welcome Theresa May's decision to draw attention to mental health, her proposals fall far short of addressing the problems.

I know as a Samaritan volunteer, someone who listens to anguished calls from people suffering severe distress, that many have been referred to our voluntary service by health professionals because there is so little NHS cover, particularly emergency and out of hours.

But the speech by the Prime Minister offered no more money to help the NHS expand its mental health support, despite that being the one thing clearly needed.

At any given moment one in four people has a mental disorder, according to the Government. This does not just damage them but costs the wider economy about £105 billion a year, largely through staff absences. So this is as much as issue for UK Plc as it is for the poor individuals who are ill.

Yet it is hard to escape the conclusion that much of what Mrs May is proposing seems to involve outsourcing responsibility for mental health to schools and employers, under the guise of 'support and training'. Over the years those two words have become handy euphemisms for inaction where the state otherwise has taken responsibility. We should be wary.

Maybe it still comes down to parity of esteem and mental health still isn't getting it. Nobody would dream of suggesting employers and schools should learn how to put a cast on a broken leg. Perhaps mental health is still the poor relation, an awkward problem that requires a great deal of human time and engagement to help people with difficulties get their lives back on track.

It is, of course, fine to help - or 'support', as the language of disengagement generally prefers - employers. But the plain fact is that that very few Human Resources departments have the skills to assume the role of mental health counsellor.

Many smaller firms do not even have departments managing their staff needs anyway, so quite how they will benefit is unclear.

Under the proposals, secondary schools will be offered mental health first aid training. Fine. But more than first aid is needed and schools do not have mental health counselling skills either (any more than leg mending ones).

Mrs May wants to transform attitudes to mental health, she says. But an attitude is not the same as treatment, which her speech seemed to skirt around expanding further. It is worth repeating: There is to no new Treasury money for any of the plans put forward.

What the NHS actually needs is more beds to treat those who need constant care. There also needs to be better access to specialists which does not, at least after an initial referral, require the further mediation of a GP or Accident & Emergency services. Mental Health is an area where long term assistance, counselling and crisis support are essential for sustained health.

Whilst Mrs May should be applauded for wanting to take the stigma out of mental health difficulties, and for recognising that many of the problems can be recognised at school. Most all the solutions require highly trained people and they take time to work. This may be an uncomfortable truth (and cost), but it is the reality. Providing some mental 'first aid' in terms of recognising a problem is welcome, but not enough.

We cannot let Government get away with thinking that raising the issue of mental health is the same as improving it. My view as a volunteer is not necessarily that of the charity I am proud to support, but nothing in what has been announced suggests to me that my call volume at the Samaritans is about to decline.

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