20/01/2014 11:59 GMT | Updated 22/03/2014 05:59 GMT

Bringing Mental Health Out of the Shadows

2014 is only a few weeks old and already mental health is in the media spotlight. So far this year, we've heard stories as varied as mental health being over-medicalised, to research showing comedians are all 'slightly psychotic'. We've seen alarming news that people are struggling to access talking treatments, the number of people who take their own lives is increasing and that in some parts of the country there are no beds for people in a mental health crisis. We're also told that today is the most depressing day of the year.

Confused? Perhaps we can make some sense of all this.

Out of all the rising noise is a growing sense that mental health is an issue that affects all of us - one we don't know enough about, but one we are increasingly becoming interested in.

Today the Deputy Prime Minister launched a new action plan for mental health, and our Time to Change campaign, which we run in partnership with Rethink Mental Illness, launched its new TV advert. These are both important initiatives for different reasons and reflect the start of a step-change in mental health.

Politically, mental health used to be in the too-difficult box. That began to change in 2012 when four MPs stood up in Parliament and talked about their own experiences. Suddenly this wasn't something that happened to someone else, it was in politicians' own back yard. Since then, the political parties have started to take mental health more seriously and this week is no exception.

Why? It makes political, social and economic sense to take this seriously. One in four people is affected by mental health problems, it costs the economy £100bn a year and stress is the biggest cause of sickness absence at work. Nick Clegg's speech sets out a fair analysis of the current situation - we've started to notice that mental health is an important issue and we've made some progress, but we really need to do more.

It's a reasonable assumption that mental health will now have more political discussion. All three main parties are talking about it more openly, and there is recognition of its importance.

This is of course a positive but how can this make any difference to people's lives? There are two major barriers to overcome - stigma and access to services.

Over the last few years, the stigma around mental health has stated to reduce - public attitudes are improving. But still, a third of people say they experience stigma and discrimination on a monthly or weekly basis, which often comes from friends, family and health professionals - the very people you would expect to be supportive. So the Time to Talk advertising campaign, launched this week by Time to Change, is vital. It's a simple request of everyone - take a few minutes to talk about mental health and we can all help. Whether it's a chat over a cup of tea or a pint, the more people talk, the more people are prepared to seek help for their mental health and the more likely people are to recover.

As the stigma recedes, the true unmet need for mental health services is beginning to show. Demand for talking treatments is outstripping supply, despite significant investment. The need to help people with mental health problems to find and stay in work is becoming increasingly apparent.

So the ambition set out by Nick Clegg this week can only be achieved if mental health services are given the resources they need, even if this means "rebalancing" investment from other parts of health. Other government departments have to do their bit too, as do employers, schools and communities.

Why is this worth it? Just talk to anyone who's lost someone to suicide, anyone who's been sectioned, anyone who's had a period of depression. The impact on people's lives is too great. It's time we took mental health seriously.