It’s a bit of a cliché to say that mental health is the Cinderella service of the NHS but it’s essentially true. There is a real institutional bias against mental health. It loses out financially when budgets are tight for local commissioners and significant advances on choice and access for patients introduced by the Labour Government left out mental health.
In the time I have available to me as Care Minister, I am determined to do everything I can to combat this and the update of the Government’s Mandate – which sets out the Government’s priorities from the NHS – published yesterday, marks a significant advance in achieving that ambition.
First, it’s important to be clear that across the country there are many places where support and care for people with mental health problems is excellent. Recently, I visited a brilliant early intervention youth service in Accrington which provides talking therapies for people with severe mental illness. It was incredibly moving to hear the testimony of young people and their parents about the overwhelmingly positive impact that this service had on their lives.
I heard from the father of a young man treated there, who spoke of the temptation to not take mental illness seriously. Once he’d admitted his son had a problem and sought help, he’d allowed real – and once unthinkable – transformation to take effect. The smile now on his son’s face, and the glowing pride on his own, were testament to the life-changing work of these therapists. Organisations like the service in Accrington show just what can be done.
But in too many parts of the country the situation is very different. The previous government introduced a standard that an NHS patient who needs treatment for a physical problem will be seen within a maximum of 18 weeks. But people who use most mental health services have no such access standards. So, for example, someone with an eating disorder has no idea how long they might have to wait for treatment. Waiting times are enormously variable around the country. We need to change this. We need to end this discrimination.
Mental illness is the biggest cause of disability in the UK – more than heart disease or cancer. Shockingly, people with a severe mental health illness on average die 15 to 20 years earlier than the general population. But only about 11% of the NHS budget was spent on NHS services to treat mental health problems during 2010 to 2011 and the money spent on mental health doesn’t focus sufficiently on early intervention and preventing a deterioration of health. As Liberal Democrats, we cannot stand by and allow this to continue. This is a fundamental issue of fairness in our society.
So the update to the government’s Mandate marks a significant moment in ending the bias against mental health. In print, for patients, doctors, and nurses to see, it says that NHS England’s objective is to put mental health on a par with physical health and to close the health gap between people with mental health problems and the population as a whole.
The Mandate also includes our commitment to introduce for the first time new waiting time and access standards for mental health services from 2015. There is also a really important declaration that crisis services for mental health should be “at all times as accessible, responsive and high quality as other health emergency services”.
But we also need to create a cultural change in the NHS and care systems in order to remove the stigma which surrounds mental health across society.
For those who are still unconvinced by the urgent need for change and for mental health to be treated as seriously as physical health, let me finish with one sobering thought. One in four of us will experience a mental health problem in our lifetime. The truth is that this affects us all and we cannot afford to ignore it. For many years Liberal Democrats have campaigned to get a fair deal for those with mental health conditions. As minister, I am glad to be working to deliver on that.
* Norman Lamb is MP for North Norfolk and was Liberal Democrat Minister of State at the Department of Health until May 2015