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Theresa May's Shared Society Speech

13/01/2017 13:53

In her first speech on healthcare as Prime Minister, Theresa May outlined her vision for a 'shared society' with mental health at its centre. Unlike David Cameron's 'big society', which emphasised the intrinsic role of voluntary bodies, May wants central government to form a driving force for positive change in societal attitudes and responses to mental health issues, which have come to the fore of the news agenda over recent months for both adults and young people. The Prime Minister claimed that the approach would reach all elements and all individuals in modern Britain, moving right across the social structure and right through life. She pledged to tackle how mental illness "separates people from each other, and deepens the divisions within our society", aggravating inequalities and perpetuating unfairness. Mrs May asserted that there is an unreasonable and unwelcome stigma around mental health: "For too long mental illness has been something of a hidden injustice in our country, shrouded in a completely unacceptable stigma and dangerously disregarded as a secondary issue to physical health." It is the Conservative government, she promised, who will dislodge this prejudice and usher in social change that would go "right to the heart of our humanity."

May takes up the issue of mental well-being in the UK with a distinct focus on the mental health of children and young people. Her speech dwelt on how, if unaddressed, mental illness "destroys lives" and scuppers the opportunities and life chances of the younger generations. This is echoed by the worrying statistic from the Prince's Trust that one in four children don't feel in control of their lives and according to the charity Young Minds, there has been a 68% rise in the number of young people being admitted to hospital because of self-harm over the past decade: that is three pupils in every classroom.

So what is Theresa May's 'shared society' going to look like in action? The shared society approach relies on expanding issues like mental health beyond the bounds of the health service, creating a unified and interconnected state sponsored approach. Therefore, every secondary school will be offered mental health first aid training, to help teachers identify the signs of mental illness. Trials will begin to strengthen links between schools and NHS specialist staff, building the inter-agency net. The entirety of child and adolescent services across the country will be subject to review and by 2021, the government have pledged that no child will have to leave their local area for mental healthcare. More focus will be put on community measures such as local clinics and crisis cafes, with an extra £15m allocated to support this in order to reduce patients visiting GPs and A&E. To bolster this, the government will be rolling out a £67 million digital media health package, where those worried about their mental well-being can check symptoms online and access help before a face to face appointment. May's pledge is about prevention in addition to intervention. The Prime Minister acknowledged that "many adult mental health problems - which one in four of us will suffer from at any one time - begin in childhood". An investment in the well-being of the future generation is truly an investment in the future.

A throughout life, shared society approach includes making work a more mentally healthy environment. Employers and organisations will also be given additional training in delivering better workplace care. May promised to instigate a review on improving mental health support in work. Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of Mind, the mental health charity, spoke positively of the massive achievement of bringing the previously ignored question of mental health to a prominent place on the political agenda: "Mental health is everyone's business and we need to see sustained leadership to make sure services and support improve for all of us with mental health problems. Having been neglected for decades, we need to see it made a priority for decades to come to make sure everyone with mental health problems can live the life they want to lead."

Theresa May has set out her mental health pledge, promising to totally transform attitudes and practices. However, many have rightly asked how without more funding will the tender lines established between teachers, GPs and mental health services survive? With no substantial additional funding proffered, will not the epidemic of closing mental health facilities, a lack of beds and patients being forced to travel hundreds of miles for help, just continue under the new title of a shared society? Identification is not everything, there must be specialist and available care to back it up and many point to how austerity closed mental health services across the country. NHS Providers, representing mental health and other trusts, predict the share of local NHS budgets devoted to mental health will actually fall next year.

The point has also been made that despite the Prime Minister promising a shared society, the reality of life in the UK since the Conservatives came to power in 2010 is worsening inequality and an increased culture of competition and selfishness. This perpetuates anxiety and depression amongst young people, who live in a culture of political uncertainty and financial difficulty. Dame Martina Milburn, chief executive of The Prince's Trust, stated that: "The Prince's Trust Macquarie Youth Index reveals that young people's confidence and happiness are at their lowest levels since the report was first launched in 2009. It paints a deeply concerning picture for a generation of young people who feel that their future is slipping away from them."

Mental health is now less of a taboo, but as it becomes more prominent in the public and political consciousness, governments seem less and less able to respond to it in a sustained and effective way. The big society was riddled with shortcomings and already issues are evident in the shared society approach. Mental health intervention requires consistent investment and sustainable accessible care structures. May promises care unlimited by region, wealth and age, but leans on underfunded resources. Preventing mental illness requires a culture which fosters mental well-being and promotes the opportunities of the future, to offset social toxicity and pessimism. May promises the younger generations that no longer will they suffer quietly and lose out on life opportunities' due to inadequate services. But she also leads a government characterised not by the humanity which informed her speech, but by a culture of inequality. Will May deliver on her promises? Or will another variety of conservative society and mental health approach, be filed under ineffective?

By Daisy Whittingham of Handsam Ltd and Katie Buckingham of Altruist Enterprises

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