Last week, the chief medical officer for the NHS said that more help is needed in order for people with mental health problems to stay in their jobs. The lack of help she spoke of has resulted in 70million lost days of work last year, costing the economy £100million, an increase of £30 million on the previous year. It's well known that mental health is criminally ignored by politicians, but surely the loss of £100million from the economy is enough to make them pay attention?
Mental health is by no means a subject with the same level of stigma that it has had in the past; huge leaps in progress have no doubt been made in terms of public awareness, but that is not to say that we are even near where we need to be. The medical and anecdotal evidence available has fuelled a progression in the public's attitude to mental health with many high profile campaigns, often involving celebrities, contributing to this drive to change perceptions. The UK's largest mental health charity, Mind, recently clubbed together with several other mental health charities to create the Mental Health policy Group, who launched a manifesto last month in order to push all political parties towards making mental health a priority for the next election.
Alastair Campbell, who campaigns on mental health issues, wrote recently about an encounter with the health secretary Jeremy Hunt, where Hunt displayed an appalling lack of understanding of mental health, when he conversationally asked Campbell what he had to be depressed about. This is a pretty common act of ignorance based on a lack of understanding of a complex medical condition, but for the minister ultimately in charge of mental health policy to say this is tantamount to outright neglect. If this is the opinion of the health secretary, it shows that despite the political efforts of the Mental Health Policy Group, our political class is not yet as informed as it should be.
If mental health issues are not addressed, if anxiety or depression are left untreated then the issue does not fade, but remains and often gets worse. As with personal mental health, perhaps a similar understanding can be applied to the state; the longer mental health is not taken seriously by the government, the worse the situation will become.
So perhaps some hard economic truths will persuade the political establishment that the time for action is now. I already mentioned that the economic cost of mental health was £100million last year, but the combined social and economic cost is the much higher figure of £150billion and the cost to business alone is £26billion. Ignore if you can the moral arguments, the duty of care that the government has to those who are ill. Ignore if you can the human element, that one in four people have a mental health problem, that hospital waiting lists are causing a rise in suicide rates and the shocking statistic that suicide is now the biggest killer of young men. If we ignore these issues as the government seems to be doing and instead just look at this as a cold economic argument, surely then, even on that reductive basis, there is enough of an imperative to act.
One of the most common responses that someone with mental health difficulties, for example anxiety, will encounter is someone saying 'why can't you just pull yourself together?' Through its inaction, the government is applying this ethos to all those who are suffering with a legitimate illness. In the 1980s Norman Tebbitt told those without a job to 'get on their bikes' and to not get off until they'd found one. It seems that Tebbitt's ethos, an ignorant and total belief in individualism has found a new home in the treatment of mental health.
The Labour party, in a recent e-book summarising the work of its policy review, quantified their position on mental health by saying that they supported the idea of 'whole person care'; incorporating physical, mental and social care into one and giving mental health parity with physical. These are good ideas and they are a good start, but is this enough? I don't know, but I do know that the neglect of mental health from the government is bordering on the criminal - if we don't have compassion, understanding and care in our politics, then we are truly lost. One day our treatment of mental health will be seen as being as backward as the medicinal use of leeches. It's a national embarrassment that our government is seemingly so ignorant of a problem which is being exacerbated by inhumane policies and so inactive that it refuses to address the human cost. We must do all we can to force the improvement of mental health care onto the agenda for next year's election and get the change we so desperately need.