How much will our understanding of mental health improve in the next decade?
Looking at the Government’s new ten-year framework for mental health research, published today (7th December 2018), it’s clear how much we still have to learn – and how much work there is to do to fill in the major gaps in our knowledge.
But the question of how much our knowledge will actually develop – and how much, therefore, life will actually improve for the one in four people who experience a mental health problem each year – remains utterly uncertain.
It’s true that, in many ways, these are unprecedented times for mental health. Various awareness-raising initiatives, most notably the Heads Together campaign fronted by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, have started a national conversation like never before.
Successive governments, all political parties and the current Prime Minister have also made mental health a priority. Earlier this year, Theresa May called the devastation wrought by mental illness one of the burning injustices of life in Britain today.
And yet the reality on the ground continues to reflect little of this apparently profound change.
Every day at MQ, our supporters still talk to us about the challenges of getting an accurate diagnosis, and of treatments delivered on a trial-and-error basis, with practitioners unable to predict outcomes with any real certainty.
And almost every day a new headline warns us of serious problems with our mental health services. Take the last few weeks: we’ve heard that long waiting times and unequal access to young people’s services are putting lives at risk; police are handling more and more mental health cases; half of commissioning groups are planning to reduce the amount they spend on mental health in the coming year.
Partly, of course, this reflects an exceptionally challenging time for our health services. But the issue far runs deeper than that, and to ignore the role that research can play in addressing this situation is to accept a status quo that has failed millions of people for years.
Put simply, mental health research must be taken far more seriously if we are to stop attempting to patch holes in current support and instead build an approach towards mental healthcare that consistently offers certainty, clarity and compassion.
Many of the ways we respond to mental illness have barely changed in decades. It’s impossible to imagine saying the same thing about cancer or heart disease. And yet with research comes the potential not only to develop more effective, more targeted responses, but to do so in ways that ease the burden on health services.
At MQ, we’re already funding studies intended to identify the people at greatest risk of mental health problems and to develop ways to prevent problems before they occur. At a time when mental health conditions cost the UK £105bn each year, finding effective ways to intervene far earlier could have profound consequences both for individuals and for our economy.
With 75% of mental illness starting before the age of 18, we’re also focusing on research involving young people. Many take years to find support that helps – if they find it all – but we’re investigating new ways to stop problems lasting a lifetime. These are the questions that research can and should be answering.
So our hope is that the new framework marks an important turning point. Its recommendations encompass everything from funding and cooperation between research agencies to the need to investigate mental illness at every stage of life. And, importantly, for people with lived-experience to be at the heart of that research.
We have the foundation, in other words, but now is the time to build on it. This should be the point where we finally achieve the greater focus, collaboration and investment that mental health research has needed for many years.
Achieve that, and a decade from now we might just look back on 2017 as the year when our understanding of mental illness finally moved towards the 21st century.