There's a little joke we share in the office: "Mental health; there's a lot to get your head around". Like all the best jokes (which I'm not claiming this is) there's a large kernel of truth at its core. When discussing about mental health provision, it is incredibly easy to get bogged down in the complexities of funding, data, outcome measures (or their absence), cuts, waiting times and a lot of associated health jargon. But since joining Rethink Mental Illness, the thing that I have heard time and again is actually refreshingly straightforward. All people with a serious mental illness are asking for is the same level of quality treatment they would receive for a serious physical illness.
For many decades the treatment of mental health in the UK has lagged far behind the care and support available for physical health. Despite affecting one in four people and being both the largest single cost across the NHS and the most common reason for days lost from work, mental health has been neglected, to the detriment of those who live with and care for those affected.
Just this week I heard from a 20-year-old supporter called Tom who has been diagnosed with depression and a personality disorder. Over the years he has made several attempts on his life. The first time it happened, his mother Rebecca took him to A&E, only to be told there was nowhere for him to stay. The solution for this common health problem? She was told to drive her son the 110-mile-journey from Norwich to London, to the nearest bed.
That wouldn't have happened if Tom was having a stroke or a heart attack.
It is an entirely unacceptable state of affairs and is of course a long way short of the "parity" that is often talked about between mental and physical health. This week, however, has seen the publication of a new Five Year Strategy that marks a hugely significant moment in the potential transformation of care for the millions of people who live with mental illness every day.
These recommendations are from the independent Mental Health Taskforce which was set up in March 2015 by NHS England, the body responsible for the delivery of the NHS on behalf of the Government.
This ambitious blueprint had input from health and social care leaders, professional bodies, charities, and those with first hand experience of mental illness. With our partners Mind, we gathered evidence from over 20,000 people into the Taskforce and once again, what we heard loud and clear was a need for services that would provide the same quality care and support that would be there for a physical health issue.
This is now the chance to make a reality of that hope.
It is a meaty and powerful document and makes, rightly, a number of recommendations of the various players across the sector - necessary if we are to have the quantum leap forward that is required. There is much in it that will be of comfort to people like Tom and Rebecca
Firstly, it recommends better access to high-quality services close to home. Of course it is impossible to have every single specialist service within a matter of minutes of someone's home; there will always need to be decisions about location and concentration of services but as a litmus test, a 220 mile round trip for someone in a crisis will, hopefully, be seen as a relic of the past.
Another is better carer engagement, which means health professionals should be trained to better involve, where appropriate, the family or close friends of those with a mental illness. It is often difficult for anyone with any kind of serious illness to advocate for themselves but if someone is experiencing, for example, an episode of psychosis it goes without saying that the input and guidance of a carer or family member can be critical to a successful outcome.
Another recommendation is around prescribing medication, and how health professionals need to improve the way they involve people in decisions about their own treatment. This is important for a whole variety of reasons amongst which is the side effects of medication often including significant weight gain. We know people with a serious mental illness die on average 20 years sooner than the rest of the population, largely because their physical health is neglected.
Welcome too is the recommendation acknowledging that people in secure care, who historically have been kept in hospital for months or years beyond what is clinically necessary, should have the right support to rejoin their communities sooner, and continue their recovery there.
Of course, since the recommendations are broad and bold, there is a need to match these with a similar ambition on investment. To implement these and other recommendations, the Taskforce estimates an additional £1billion per year from 2021, and that's in addition to recent mental health funding announcements.
The Taskforce is independent, and these are only recommendations, although it is deeply heartening to see such a positive response from both the Government and NHS England, who have accepted the recommendations in full. Now the focus shifts to what policy makers call delivery. In other words, ensuring that it doesn't go the way of other valuable reports and end up on a shelf already groaning with dust.
Thousands of people like Tom and Rebecca deserve better than they have had in the past, and this is our opportunity to make that reality. This is a chance that will not come around again quickly and must not be lost.
For more detail on the Mental Health Taskforce, visit www.rethink.org/taskforce