24/08/2015 10:29 BST | Updated 24/08/2016 06:59 BST

Treating Mental Health Earlier Is the Key to Better Value for Money Spent by the NHS

The first 100 days of the new government have seen a number of significant reports and announcements about mental health services and the lives of people with mental health conditions. They include some very promising signs of continued commitment to improving mental health but also some major strains on the system that needs to be addressed.

The Conservative Party's manifesto included several important pledges relating to mental health.

The party committed to continuing the work of the Coalition Government to achieve 'parity of

esteem' between mental and physical health in the NHS, including enforcing new access and waiting time standards for some kinds of treatment and improving mental health care for women during and after pregnancy. The party also pledged to offer 'significant new support' to people with mental health conditions in seeking employment, to provide health-based places of safety for people needing urgent care under the Mental Health Act, and to expand the provision of psychological therapies across the country.

Since the election, the government has taken immediate action in some of these areas. The Prime Minister's first speech following the formation of the new government included a commitment to improving mental health support, and this was followed up with an announcement of £143 million to be spent this year on improving children's mental health services, helping local areas to draw up much-needed Transformation Plans. The Queen's Speech also included proposals to change the Mental Health Act to ensure children are not taken to police stations in a mental health emergency. And at the same time NHS England has been developing its own five-year strategy for mental health through a Taskforce led by Mind chief executive Paul Farmer, which is expected to publish its proposals in the autumn.

The scale of the challenge ahead, however, has been underlined by recent reports about the state of mental health services and the financial challenges facing the NHS, local authorities and many other agencies that support people with mental health conditions. The Royal College of Psychiatrists, for example, reviewed the 'crisis' in the availability of psychiatric hospital beds and found that cuts in community services were the primary cause of pressure on inpatient services. Healthwatch England reviewed hospital discharges and found examples both of people being discharged too soon and of people getting 'stuck' in beds for want of effective support outside. Most worryingly of all, a report from the University of Manchester found rising rates of suicide among men in contact with community mental health services during the last decade, with particular concerns about people who had previously been admitted to hospitals outside their local area.

There are also significant concerns about some emerging policies and funding decisions. The Chancellor's decision to cut £200 million from Department of Health spending outside the NHS could lead to big cuts in public health services, including drug and alcohol treatment and efforts to prevent mental ill health. And there are widespread concerns about the growing use of benefit sanctions against people with a range of mental health problems and addictions: with proposals mooted to extend this to the uptake of drug or alcohol treatment. These moves could put extra pressure on mental health services and hit those with the most complex needs most severely. And the Government's decision not to extend the NHS Constitution to create an entitlement to evidence-based talking therapies is potentially a big backward step in bringing about parity for mental health care in England.

There is now clear evidence and a persuasive 'business case' for investing in better mental health support. We know that offering help as soon as possible when people become unwell, particularly in childhood, makes a huge difference. Yet most investment goes into later interventions when problems have already reached a crisis. And most adults and children with common mental health conditions get no help at all. But by helping people quickly, joining up mental and physical health care, and supporting people to recover on their own terms, we can get better value for money from the NHS and tackle some of the biggest inequalities in health in our society.

Redressing the imbalance in NHS spending and creating a fairer chance in life for people with mental health problems is the work of more than one Parliament. Previous governments have taken important steps in the right direction. The first 100 days of this Government have shown signs of further progress. It is vital that this is sustained throughout the next five years, both for the one in four of us who will experience mental ill health each year and for the economic and social wellbeing of every community in every part of England.