THE BLOG
30/09/2015 13:37 BST | Updated 30/09/2016 06:12 BST

Why the New Shadow Minister for Mental Health Can Make or Break Labour's Campaign

What unites the thousands of voices championing mental health and wellbeing from all corners of society is a recognition that, while some of us may be more at risk, poor mental health can affect us all.. For the new Shadow Minister for Mental Health, the great test will be in whether these voices can be aligned with Labour social and economic policy

For the first time, the UK will next week mark World Mental Health Day with a Shadow Minister for Mental Health. We can expect Luciana Berger to discuss some obvious challenges: increasing funding for mental health services, getting mental health education into schools, protecting disability support for those struggling with long-term mental health issues. These won't be easy to accomplish, but they at least have broad public support.

Less obvious are those challenges that come from looking more deeply at the relationship between mental health, economic trends and social policy. As Matt Haig noted, if we are going to tackle rising rates of poor mental health then we need to go upstream and integrate mental health policy into other departments. For instance, we know that suicide rates tend to rise during periods of recession, therefore a robust mental health strategy (and economic strategy) needs to consider how to better protect people against economic fluctuations.

We also know that economic prosperity is not enough to ward off suicide. Some of the largest economies in the world - China, India, Korea and Japan - also have among the world's highest suicide rates. Nor does equality necessarily protect against suicide. That isn't to say equality isn't good for mental health, only that there are other forces at play that need to be added to the equation.

One of these forces is social comparison - the tendency to compare and contrast ourselves with others and with idealised images - which can explain the limitations of macro-economic indicators, including the paradox of why suicide rates are often high in areas with the highest levels of happiness. If everyone seems to be happy except for us, we're probably not going to feel very good about ourselves. Labour will therefore need to consider how it can both reduce inequalities and also ward off the ill effects of social comparison amongst those (hopefully dwindling few) that remain less well off - particularly with regard for high risk groups such as young men.

Some researchers have linked the negative effects of social comparison to the advertising industry and its tendency to incite excessive self-consciousness and perfectionism. While regulating the media to prevent such content might be overly ambitious in our global society, perhaps a bolder approach, and one that aligns with the demilitarising ambitions of Corbyn's Labour, would be to explore the rollout of public work programs for young people that redirect attention towards a spirit of service and community - for instance by expanding the government's National Citizens Service.

As the columnist Owen Jones notes, the success of any policy proposals and social campaigns depends on Labour communicating a persuasive vision that widens support. Here, inspiration might be found in the campaigning of Lord Layard, a pioneer for mental health under the last Labour government, who now battles against shallow materialism and mindless pursuit of wealth via Action for Happiness. The movement, which has almost 80,000 Twitter followers and recently hosted a packed event with the Dalai Lama, represents one strand of a larger network of mental health and wellbeing advocates.

What unites the thousands of voices championing mental health and wellbeing from all corners of society is a recognition that, while some of us may be more at risk, poor mental health can affect us all, regardless of economic circumstance. Just as we cannot buy happiness, no amount of money can immunise us from mental illness. For the new Shadow Minister for Mental Health, the great test will be in whether these voices can be aligned with Labour social and economic policy. If they can, it bodes well for Labour's general election campaign.

The current government has made steps to try and quantify the relationship between economics and wellbeing. Labour ought to embrace this, and address its flaws by ensuring that central government is also closely monitoring rates of depression and suicide. This is not just for the benefit of a few, but for all of us. Despite our tendency to medicalise the problem, those who are suicidal don't start by looking to end their life, but by trying to escape a set of circumstances. And if we are focussed only on the circumstances that promote the wellbeing of the majority then we are all at risk of becoming members of the neglected minority.

Encouragingly, Jeremy Corbyn seems to have an intuitive grasp of the way mental health interconnects with society. His support for a "holistic approach that sees emotional wellbeing as fundamentally connected with a society less atomised and individualistic and more socially connected, [and] more caring" makes him perhaps the first mainstream political leader to be willing to acknowledge that widespread mental health issues are a symptom of social ill. Meanwhile, his refusal to bully his opponents or court the morally ambiguous media - coupled with his own frugal and uncomplicated lifestyle - suggest rare congruence between political beliefs and personal behaviour.

If Labour is going to truly be the party for mental health, it needs to take these messages and hitch them to a manifesto that doesn't discriminate along lines of identity. Members of the Labour ranks might often like to portray the wealthy as being omnipotent embodiments of evil, but in the non-fiction world, we are all vulnerable and exposed - and not least those who think they can find refuge in material wealth.