At a time when many people question the relevance of politics to their lives, last week at first appeared to confirm their fears. The Leveson Inquiry continued to dominate the attention of almost everybody within the Westminster bubble and almost nobody outside of it. But for a few hours on Thursday afternoon, parliament turned its attention to an issue that affects one in four of us: poor mental health.
It was the first time in years that mental health was debated in the main chamber of the House of Commons and politicians on all sides rose to the occasion. Four MPs bravely chose to disclose their own mental health issues, showing true leadership, and making the debate a historic moment in the battle to end the stigma and discrimination that people suffering from poor mental health experience.
As a report today from the London School of Economics highlights, poor mental health accounts for nearly half of all illness in under-65s but many people receive no treatment, despite effective therapies existing. The policy challenges are huge - from rolling out psychological therapies in all parts of the country to ensuring that assessments for unemployment benefits take full account of mental health as well as physical health. The debate previewed the introduction of a bill that will finally end the discriminatory laws that can prevent those who have experienced mental health problems from serving as a school governor, a juror, a director of a public company or a Member of Parliament.
But as one of the LSE report's authors, Professor Lord Layard, said today, change first requires a new public attitude. Our reticence to discuss mental health means that issues go unnoticed, un-discussed and untreated, and problems that could have been dealt with become entrenched and harder to resolve. Specialist services for those suffering from severe and enduring mental health problems like schizophrenia will always be critical, but with over 400,000 Britons reporting that work-related stress is making them ill it makes no sense to package mental health off as a discrete problem to be dealt with by unseen isolated services. Mental health is everyone's responsibility but most of us do not know much about it, and this ignorance can mean our responses are shaped by fear.
Mental Health First Aid seeks to address this by improving the mental health literacy of the population. Imported from Australia, this two-day training course teaches people how to spot the early signs of poor mental health, and gives them the skills and confidence to provide support to family members, friends or colleagues. There are now over 650 accredited mental health first aid instructors in England who have so far delivered the two-day course to over 40,000 people. Take-up has mostly been by frontline public service professionals - NHS workers, police officers and teachers. With one in 10 children experiencing mental health problems, and very high rates among people with long-term health conditions and those in the criminal justice service, these are the right places to start. But private sector companies, including John Lewis, Mitie, Linklaters and Tata Steel, are also providing mental health first aid training to their staff and seeing increases in productivity and reductions in sickness absence.
MPs did themselves proud on Thursday, showing thoughtfulness, insight and courage. It was a debate that showed how much progress has been made, but also how far there is to go. The words of Kevan Jones MP as he disclosed his own experience of depression - "I do not know whether I have done the right thing. Perhaps I will go home tonight and think I have not, but I think I have. I hope that it does not change anyone's view of me" - will have resonated with all those who have hoped for acceptance and understanding of their mental health problems.
If initiatives like Mental Health First Aid can improve the mental health literacy of the population, it will build understanding in every community. It will build the confidence to talk about mental health, not to fear it, and help prevent problems developing. At the very least it would start to reduce the stigma people face.
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