2017 - A Landmark Year For Mental Health?

19/01/2017 12:20 GMT | Updated 20/01/2018 10:12 GMT

For some months those of us in the mental health sector have known there was the possibility of a major announcement from the Government brewing, and so I was delighted to accept the invitation to hear the Prime Minister talk at the Charity Commission on Monday, for what had been a well-trailed speech.

Listening to Theresa May talking about righting some of the injustices that still grip society, I was struck by the peculiar context of the occasion. Ever since she has become Prime Minister in July, Theresa May has found herself knee-deep in the fall-out of Brexit - six solid months of fending off questions about what kind of deal the government would be seeking to achieve and how it might go about convincing our ersthwile European partners to meet its demands. And there she was, Monday morning setting out her case for how her Government would position itself differently from its predecessors - arguably an audacious grab for that mystical centre ground in politics and certainly her first major domestic policy speech in months. And what was the subject on which she first wanted to demonstrate proof of this renewed focus - mental health. And, by the way, this was not just a commitment to improve mental health in the NHS but a passionate exposition of why we needed to encourage schools and employers to embrace the issue and offer a better deal for the millions of people who are dealing with a mental health problem. Colleagues who have been in the sector far longer than me tell me they simply could not have conceived of this a decade ago - let alone five years ago.

So that's it then? Job done, right? Erm, no. Not by a country mile or ten.

Despite previous promising rhetoric, there is still a dearth of good quality, local services for people with mental health problems. Money that has been promised for mental health, as many studies have shown, does not appear to be making its way through to the front line as commissioners use the cash, which still isn't ring-fenced, to put out fires that are burning elsewhere across the health system - a question that Gary Gibbon from Channel 4 asked the Prime Minister at the launch on Monday. Still it is routine for people to wait too long, to travel too far and to struggle to get access in the first place to the sort of service that is considered standard for any semi-serious physical condition.

Yet, I do feel curiously optimistic. The Prime Minister's announcement comes almost a year on since the Five Year Forward View for Mental Health was published. This is essentially a road map for the future of mental health across the NHS and beyond. It was a landmark moment, and along with the progress that has been made in the last eleven months or so the Government's renewed commitment signals a powerful foot is being put on the accelerator. To be fair to the PM as Home Secretary she made a number of very positive policy decisions, inlcuding moves to end the use of police cells for people detained under the Mental Health Act and also she did not pretend on Monday that there could or would be a quick fix. That sense of realism is welcome so long as she and her Government stay the course.

So we'll be doing our bit to keep pressure on the Government and working closely with other organisations to ensure reforms are implemented and the voice of people affected by mental illness is heard. Commissioners out there, please take note.

One area that was not touched upon in Monday's announcement was housing, despite how essential it is for people's mental health, and the undeniable benefits of a safe and secure place to call home. Supported housing, often used by people who have just left hospital, provides regular support as people continue on their recovery and begin to move on to living independently. Unfortunately these places are currently under threat.

In 2016 we worked closely with other charities and organisations to persuade the Government to halt plans for a cap on supported housing spending which would potentially leave people unable to afford these services.

In the autumn the Government agreed to suspend this cap while they develop a new funding model but the worry is that with pressures on local authorities any safety net that is not provided at a national level is liable to end up being so weak that it does not capture people when they fall.

There's still time to sign our petition to Theresa May, calling on her to protect supported housing, before we take it to Downing Street. Following her own personal commitment to mental health we hope that she will move to safeguard a resource that is so important to so many people's health and ongoing recovery.

Parity of esteem between mental health and physical health remains a distant prize but there can be no doubt that this week, it became just a little bit closer.