Opinion: Will mental health be a vote-winner?

Mark Argent 1

I was surprised when I saw the promotion of mental health emerging Liberal Democrat policy. Its effects are far more widespread than people like to admit, but mental health is so stigmatised that it seems a long way from being a vote-winner. Like entering the coalition, championing it seems like something important, but where we might have to pay a price in terms of popularity.

It is a difficult area to write about. Among my own circle of friends there are a number of people whose lives are badly affected by mental health issues. The area is so stigmatised that I feel I can’t tell stories in writing, but the stories I can’t write down would include some real achievements, of people coping with really difficult situations.

One story I can mention is of someone who is no longer with us, someone whose mental health was always a little fragile. She had an episode when things deteriorated and, as happens all too often, the ’emergency’ solution meant a night in a police cell – more because she was thought a danger to herself than to anyone else. A night in a police cell would be an unpleasant experience for a criminal who has been arrested, but for someone with already fragile mental health it was a grim and highly stressful. Shortly after she was finally taken to a psychiatric hospital she suffered a major heart attack and died. I am not blaming any of the individuals involved, for whom it must have been a really difficult experience, but in effect, a failure of the system led to a tragic death.

One in four people suffer from mental illness during their life — that is to say, one in four people have a time when psychiatric help is needed. On average three children in every class experience a mental illness. Many more suffer from the ‘coughs and colds’ of mental health. The situation is particularly extreme with groups who are already marginalised — the long-term unemployed, LGBT people, some ethnic minorities — which means it adds an extra layer to already-difficult situations. It makes it that much harder for people who are already disadvantaged.

Mental health has often been the under-valued and under-resourced part of the NHS. People do fall through the system. It’s  an area of illness which often has long term effects on people’s earning. In justice terms there are real issues of human rights for people affected by mental illness, because it is compounded by other people’s perceptions and a lack of resources. In economic terms, there is growing evidence that treatment pays for itself, in terms of people’s lives and capacity to earn a living improving.

I am delighted that we as Liberal Democrats are taking this seriously. As I listened to a fringe meeting on mental health and then Norman Lamb’s speech at the Spring Conference, I found myself thinking of a string of people whose lives would benefit. The planned manifesto commitment end the use of police cells for people under 18, and work to reduce it drastically for adults struck a chord. I’m delighted to hear that £150 Million will be spent over the next five years so that every area has access to good services for eating disorders. Having heard friends talk of long and distressing waits for appointments, the arrival of targets for mental health treatment is very encouraging, particularly when they include tight time limits for psychosis as there are for cancer. In purely financial terms, I am delighted to hear of plans to invest £500Million each year in mental health during the next parliament, in addition to meeting the £8Billion funding shortfall  we are likely to have by 2020.

Above all, a major political party taking up the issue of mental illness does a huge amount to alleviate the stigma which compounds people’s symptoms, and makes many reluctant to seek help.

I am the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for North West Leicestershire. I don’t think this constituency is unusual, but things have caught my eye right across the constituency. These range from the stresses of people who are highly successful and affluent through to those for whom long term unemployment (or under-employment) is compounded by depression, making their situation doubly hard to change. They include the isolation of farmers, pressures on people forced by economic necessity to work away from home, or cope with deprivation.

Health Minister Norman Lamb spoke movingly of the mental illness of his son. Although the situation sounds hard, it is something anyone close to someone who has a mental illness will recognise,  I’m glad that this something we can start to engage with.

Mental illness affects not just the person with the diagnosis, but also their network of friends and family. Perhaps that means championing it will not cost us votes. Whatever the outcome of the election, it will be good if campaigning on this issue eases some of the stigma, and rather better if we are in a position to carry out some of our promises in government after the election.

* Mark Argent was the Liberal Democrat candidate in Huntingdon Constituency in 2019 and blogs at markargent.com/blog.

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  • It may have been more of a vote winner if the coalition had a better record in government. I read recently that spending on mental health had fallen by 8% in real terms over the last 5- years. Why should voters believe the next 5-years will be any better? Perhaps if Nick Clegg made a pledge it may help.

  • Simon Foster 23rd Mar '15 - 11:30pm

    Well said Mark. I’ll put up my draft of the speech I made to conference on this subject in due course.

    Malc – the budget had an extra £400 million in for mental health, and that the NHS will have the first waiting times for mental health in the future. That isn’t some possible future coalition promise, that is real action that has been delivered, NOW.

    With regards the Lib Dems in the next Parliament, we are fighting for an extra £500 million on top of the £400 million.
    As a service user, I find that very positive news indeed.

  • Eddie Sammon 23rd Mar '15 - 11:34pm

    I think mental health needed pushing up the agenda and there is so much more work that needs to be done. However I think the party needs to maintain a broad focus on policy.

    I understand the Blair/Labour pledge card strategy, or whoever came up with it, but I think they need to be bigger than just five or six issues.

  • Simon Foster 23rd Mar '15 - 11:42pm

    Found it – here’s the first draft of what I said (which changed a bit, but majority of it is the same):

    I’m a former Lib Dem Councillor who has recently rejoined the party, and head of Politics at a large midlands FE college where I lecture in A level politics. I’m on a phased return to work, having suferred from depression and anxiety.

    I was diagnosed back in December 2014. At the time, I was offered counselling, and placed on a ten week waiting list for CBT counselling in the Midlands. In January, my problems got worse, and I found myself out in the woods near my house, contemplating suicide. A friend and the Samaritans were brilliant, helping me get back to a place of safety and then talk out my problems.

    Explaining this to my doctor, she offered to do what she could to, to prioritise me on the waiting list to get me counselling as quickly as possible. Luckily I had the money to go down the private route, and am now receiving some private counselling which has been brilliant in improving my mental health.

    Other people aren’t so lucky, and don’t have the money I had access to.

    My point is this – you should not have to until your in the woods contemplating suicide for you to move up the list for counselling. Indeed you should not have to wait 10 weeks after diagnosis for counselling. And you should not have to rely on private funds, to help what for you is an essential service in improving your health. We need a seamless approach, between NHS, Social Services and charities where counselling is offered in a preventative way.

    How much money has it cost my employer in statutory sick pay whilst I’ve been off? Thousands. How much money could we save if we had more preventative counselling services in this country? Thousands just in dozens of cases like mine, millions for all those cases up and down the country. Well worth thinking about, in this time of austerity.

    As a former NHS and Social Services Scrutiny Chair on a council which scrutinised a mental health trust, I believe there’s a lot we can be doing here, at a national and local level. Liberal Democrats Councillors have always been good and getting stuck into the casework and scrutinising the facts. I believe we should be using our scrutiny powers much more, whether in control or opposition, to improve our mental health services, and encourage joined up working between NHS Trusts and Social Services.

    Liberal Democrats have always believed in investment politics, where money can be sensibly invested to save money in the long term. Mental health is a key area we can do this. Not just on economic grounds, but on compassionate grounds where it is the right thing to do. Nick Clegg is absolutely right to talk of zero suicides.

    Nothing else in a compassionate, modern, tolerant liberal society will do.

  • This can be a good policy and the right thing to do without necessarily being a vote winner (at least on a significant scale). Instinctively it feels like a policy that polls well (ie everyone likes it, no-one dislikes it) but which doesn’t have a lot of salience – ie it drives people’s voting intention significantly.

    Now it is possible to shift that by long-term campaigning – but that hasn’t really happened as there was virtuallly no talk on this issue by leadership figures until conference in 2014.

    I do worry that it is the end point of a view of election messaging that assumes that if you take a few things that poll the best then you will get a good result. That isn’t (IMO) the way in which people work when it comes to elections – but it does seem to be the way Ryan Coetzee sees things. Certainly he’s talked of people’s vote being given in return for an offer – but no thought being given to the emotional basis and narrative that underpins how people decide who they are going to vote for. It would be fascinating to know the extent to which that sort of debate about key/headline manifesto pledges has been had.

  • It isn’t a question of a vote winner.It is a question of doing the right thing especially for young people.

  • Philip Thomas 24th Mar '15 - 7:58am

    @Manfarang. I couldn’t agree more. I don’t think there are many votes in promises on mental health. It happens to be an issue that engages me, but I was voting for the party anyway. It is however the right thing to do.

    There are many reasons for this. Scepticism and suspicion of politicians is high among those with mental health problems (to speak from my experience as a member of that community) for understandable reasons. We as a party are somewhat unpopular at the moment, also for understandable reasons.

    On the other hand the potential benefits of properly engaging with mental health problems are substantial. Lives can be saved, lives can be transformed. Prevention is better than cure, especially when we don’t have a cure.

  • As someone who has suffered from mental health problems and an eating disorder from early adolescent to my late forties, [still occasional bouts of anxiety/depression] I find the headline very objectionable.

    To equate mental health with vote winning… I’m shaking my head.

    What I do know, and have had heard from friends and relatives is that our mental health services since the Lib Dems have been in government have worsened. One GP friend, who also did valuable work at his local mental health unit, k has taken early retirement as he found the pressure was getting too much and impacting on his own well being.
    As a long term Lib Dem voter, one who moaned about shake ups to the system under both Labour & Tories in previous governments he has expressed his anger that the NHS has been so badly impacted under the party he supported for so many years. If we are losing doctors like him, much loved by patients and a wonderful, caring therapeutic worker it is hard to see what the next few years hold. Always Virgin, Capita or a private company waiting in the wings, vulture -like.

  • Stephen Campbell 24th Mar '15 - 9:34am

    While I applaud the Norman Lamb’s work on mental health, it is nowhere near enough. Behind the spin and PR, mental health services are still suffering.

    As a mental health patient, I have seen services become worse since this government was formed and the NHS “reforms” passed. I’m now waiting even longer between appointments. The crisis teams are overwhelmed and cannot cope. I’ve been waiting almost two years now for an appointment for talking therapy.

    And, as said above, the way this government (and to a lesser extent, the last Labour government) has treated those with mental health issues who cannot work is absolutely appalling. The WCA is not fit for purpose. Sanctions are unfarily hitting those with mental health problems disproportionately. It dehumanises those who are already incredibly vulnerable. It has led some people to take their own lives.

    The whole DWP system, when dealing with people cursed with mental health problems, is cruel and inhumane and it should’ve been scrapped and replaced with something better years ago. It is to this party’s shame that it has not used its influence in coalition to stand up for these people against the cruel, bullying DWP.

    The rhetoric and PR is at odds with my and many others’ experiences of mental health services across government departments since the coalition was formed. And it is, as others in this thread have said, slightly offensive that this article’s headline sees mental health policy in terms of “does it win votes?” vs. “is it the right thing to do?”.

  • Stephen Campbell 24th Mar '15 - 9:35am

    Er, that should just read “Norman Lamb” not “the Norman Lamb”. 🙂

  • @ Stephen

    Absolutely agree we should not make this our key health policy because it’s a vote winner, but because it’s what’s needed. But to seem credible we also need a broader health policy strategy that covers A&E, GP services (which are under severe threat in some areas particularly the inner-city), health prevention and more joined up health and social care services (which is Lib Dem policy I think).

  • Hywel 24th Mar ’15 – 12:01am
    “…..it feels like a policy that polls well (ie everyone likes it, no-one dislikes it) …

    …there was virtuallly no talk on this issue by leadership figures until conference in 2014.

    I do worry that it … .. assumes that if you take a few things that poll the best then you will get a good result.

    …,it does seem to be the way Ryan Coetzee sees things. ”

    Hywel makes some extremely valid points. It would be nice to think that at some point there will be a full, open and widespread discussion within the party about the validity and effectiveness of the approach that has dominated the top of the party in the run-up to this election.

    The approach seems to be the very antithesis of “working with people in their communities to take power and use it”.

    On the evidence of the support for our party in the opinion polls (and parliamentary and local by-elections) since the announcement at the Autumn Conference 2014 this polIcy seems to have had little or no positive impact on the voter.

  • Helen Dudden 28th Mar '15 - 2:05pm

    It should not have to be classed as a vote winner, a necessity is a better word.

    Those of us who have anorexic experience within our families, and just how difficult the problem is to solve when it I with very children.

    The problems with not eating, is of course the way forward back to a normal eating pattern. The pleasure has been removed from enjoying food, so that it becomes an undertaking to get through what is set before them.

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