Paul Burstow MP writes… Parity for mental health: learning lessons from across the pond

The last few weeks have seen the good, the bad and the ugly in the world of mental health. We had the very welcome announcement from Norman Lamb that the government is leading by example, with commitments from 13 departments to sign up to ‘Time to Change’. That was the good news. The bad came in the form of the thoughtless and stigmatising portrayal of mental illness in Halloween customs sold by ASDA and Tesco, companies that should have known better. The ugly could be found on the front page of The Sun with its irresponsible scaremongering about violence and mental health.

We still have a long way to go to banish stigma and discrimination when it comes to mental health. The same can be said about the ambition of achieving parity with physical health which is at the core of the mental health strategy I developed when I was minister for care services.

We must make further, quicker, progress to tackle a stigma that is condemning people to a poor quality of life and even shorter lives. To map out the next steps to achieving parity I am currently chairing a mental health commission for the think tank CentreForum.

In this role I recently visited Boston to see what lessons could be learnt from across the pond. Interestingly, the impact of Obama’s healthcare reforms have spurred accountable care organisations to make smarter use of data to identify heavy users of health resources, particularly emergency services. Having established that in the US 70% of the cost of co-morbid mental health sits with just 10% of patients, targeted intervention was swiftly identified as a major driver of cost efficiency.

And the response is an increasingly holistic approach that puts mental health care front and centre, with easy access to specialists. Multidisciplinary teams, including doctors, clinical social workers, health workers, nurses and consulting psychiatrists, are reaching out into the community to deliver care where people are. This provides a salutary lesson for the UK, where it has been estimated that co-existing mental health problems cost the NHS around £13.5 bn a year in extra spending on physical health services. I saw peer counselling programmes working with leading MIT technologists to develop apps to support, monitor and encourage people with mental health problems. I heard of significantly reduced inpatient stays compared with UK and a much stronger focus on social recovery.

Of course there are areas where we in the UK are leading the way, for example with pioneering recovery colleges, children’s ‘improving access to physical therapies’ programmes and anti-stigma initiatives. We should be proud that Liberal Democrats in government have been championing this work. But, sadly, we still have a long way to go to deliver the kind of mental health services fit for the 21st Century. Last week’s warnings that our mental health services are reaching crisis point cannot be ignored. We need more joined up care, a relentless focus on recovery, and we need to see it sooner rather than later. The UK can no longer afford to let the burden of mental ill health continue to grow unchecked, either for individuals or the economy.

* Paul Burstow is Liberal Democrat candidate for Sutton and Cheam and was the MP until the dissolution of Parliament on 30th March.

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One Comment

  • Excellent. This is certainly one issue that should never become a political football but I am glad that this party is taking real leadership on mental health.

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