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The Sad Truth Is That for Thousands of People With Mental Health Issues in the UK, There Is No Dignity

09/10/2015 16:52 | Updated 09 October 2016

In the weeks since I was appointed Shadow Minister for Mental Health I have been overwhelmed by the words of encouragement and support from across the worlds of politics and health, and from the public. This is the first position of its kind, and reflects the genuine interest and concern felt by the new leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn.

I've also been overwhelmed by the stories people have told me about their own experiences in dealing with mental health services, either for themselves or on behalf of a loved one. Many people are well-treated and receive the support they need. Too many more do not. The picture is rapidly building up of a mental health service in the depths of a crisis, with vulnerable people not getting what they need. This is sharply contrasted with a government whose rhetoric about parity of esteem does not match the reality on the ground.

The theme of this year's World Mental Health Day is 'dignity'. The sad truth is that for thousands of people with mental health issues in the UK, there is no dignity. They face services stretched to breaking point and a system which seems labyrinthine and unnavigable. At every stage of life, from the young people with eating disorders, to the adults with depression, to veterans with post-traumatic stress, to elderly people facing loneliness, the problems are growing.

As the Mental Health Foundation reminds us, 28% of the total burden of disease in our country is mental ill health, compared to 16% each for cancer and heart disease. One in four people in the UK will experience a mental illness in any given year. Around 50% of women with perinatal mental health problems are not identified or treated. One in ten children and young people (aged 5-16 years) have a clinically diagnosable mental health condition yet seven out of ten do not get the help they need in time.

Overlaying these shocking statistics is the stark truth that the prevalence of common mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety are linked to social class and income. Poorer people are more likely to suffer from mental illnesses. Many of the phone-calls and emails I've received in recent weeks have been from people at the sharp end of the government's changes to the benefits system, often being assessed fit for work when they have debilitating mental illnesses. Ministers' policies are making a difficult situation even more stressful.

So what needs to happen? The first step is more openness and transparency about mental illness. So many brilliant campaigners and celebrities have led the way in breaking taboos. People such as Jo Brand, Alastair Campbell and Stephen Fry have been open about their own experiences, and this has created a space for others to talk about it.

We all know, though, that there is still a huge stigma surrounding mental illness. People in the workplace fear discrimination if they are open about their conditions. Young people face bullying. Many people lack the knowledge to identify the signs of mental illness in themselves or others. Just as there was a taboo surrounding cancer fifty years ago, so today mental illness still attracts discrimination, fear and ignorance. Campaigns such as Time To Change have been brilliant at challenging stereotypes and tackling stigma, but there is still a long way to go.

For example, our language reflects a range of prejudicial attitudes with a wide range of words and phrases associated with mental illness associated with pejoratives or insults. The type of language which is no longer acceptable when associated with women or people from minority ethnic backgrounds, is still applied to people with mental illness. This has to stop.

The big picture is that mental health cannot be the sole preserve of the NHS. The nature of our mental health transcends the borders of policy-making and service delivery. That's one reason why my new role cuts across departments. So many factors have an impact on our mental health - jobs, housing, crime, drugs, homelessness, education and the environment. We have to stop addressing mental health solely through the prism of our NHS.

I am keen to encourage employers to do more to help their workers stay healthy. Some of the best managers work hard to safeguard their staff's mental health. No workplace should make someone mentally ill. We need to look at the education system, and work with schools to tackle bullying, low self-esteem, self-harm, negative body images and other conditions harming young people.

We need to look at how people with mental illness are treated within the criminal justice system, especially in prisons where more than 70% of the prison population has two or more mental health disorders, and the suicide rate in prisons is almost 15 times higher than in the general population.

I call upon the UK government, and governments around the world, to bring together their service-deliverers and policy-makers to devise services which are genuinely joined-up. No longer can we isolate and pigeon-hole the needs of people with mental illnesses. Those needs must be addressed across government, and in partnership with bodies across every sector. If we want genuinely to put care for mental health on the same plane as care for physical health, then we need a re-imagining of how services are delivered.

My immediate priority is to hold ministers to account for their broken promises on mental health funding, and to speak up for those people, often desperate and vulnerable, who are being let down. But beyond party political decisions, we must work together to tackle taboos, challenge stigma, and redesign services to match the needs of so many people. This World Mental Health Day, let us focus on dignity and rededicate ourselves to that task.

Luciana Berger is the Labour and Co-operative MP for Liverpool Wavertree and shadow minister for mental health