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Mental health must not become a new front in the culture wars

Monday, 25 March 2024 Dr Sarah Hughes, CEO of Mind

Dr Sarah Hughes, CEO of Mind, discusses stigmatising comments made by a senior government minister last week. She also explains where the UK government should focus its efforts if it wants to improve the nation's mental health and get people with mental health problems back into work.

Mental health must not be allowed to become a new front in the culture wars. Otherwise, the nation risks taking a gigantic step back when looking after its mental health. But when the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions says Britain’s approach to mental health culture is in danger of having “gone too far” that is exactly what he risks doing.

What the Secretary of State's words did, deliberate or otherwise, was distract attention from the real issue. Lost in the noise of “mental health culture” having “gone too far” was yet more evidence of the perilous state of mental health services and skyrocketing poverty, so often the cause of mental health problems.

The debate we should be having – and what the government would be better served focusing on – is dealing with just that.

Stigmatising mental health problems

This rhetoric and the notion that “normal anxieties of life [were] being labelled as an illness” and leading people on to benefits, is deeply concerning. It undermines and stigmatises people’s mental health problems. Stigma remains a significant barrier to people up and down the country seeking support and getting the care they need.

There is a chasm between the rhetoric and reality. Benefits are not easily accessible to people who are going through “the normal ups and downs of human life”. The system is notoriously stressful and difficult to navigate and repeatedly underpays people with mental health problems. A fact borne out by the 60% success rate of appeals by people originally denied Employment Support Allowance.

Mind simply cannot stay silent when we see statements from senior politicians and media commentators perpetuating misconceptions around mental health. If this continues, we are in grave danger of discouraging people from seeking help when they need it most.

There are now 1.9 million people waiting to access mental health treatment.

We share the Secretary’s concerns about the increasing number of people being too unwell to work and we agree that work can be good for people’s mental health.

Our research backs this up. Many people we have spoken to for our report Reassessing Assessments[1] told us they wished they were well enough to work. But too many struggled to find employment which gave them the flexibility to manage their mental health problems and contribute in a meaningful way.

Poverty is increasing poor mental health

The reality is that many people with mental health problems find themselves stuck in insecure and low-paid jobs leaving them both distressed and in poverty. The relationship between mental health and poverty is undeniable[2] and raises crucial questions about the support systems in place for the most vulnerable. 

Last week we saw evidence of the steepest increase in poverty in 30 years[3]. The annual poverty figures highlighted that absolute poverty had increased by 600,000 in the last year and now affects 12 million people. The number of people at risk or unable to afford enough food to live on leapt from 4.2m to 7.2m in one year. These numbers should act as a wakeup call, though I fear they will just be accepted as the new normal.

The announcement by the UK government increasing the roll-out of individual placement support in the Autumn budget[4] was welcome, but these schemes are still not reaching enough people with mental health problems.

Given this backdrop, it should come as no surprise that mental health problems have increased. There are now 1.9 million people waiting to access mental health treatment, and nearly half a million are children and young people.

A damning report into mental health services

According to last week's damning Care Quality Commission report (CQC),[5] children and young people had to wait an average of 40 days from referral to treatment. And many were placed in the wrong settings, such as adult wards, which only made their distress more acute.

Racial disparities persist. People from minoritised communities are more likely to experience mental illness, but less likely to receive the mental health support they need. Black and Black British people are still 3.5 times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act than white people. They are also eight times more likely to be placed on community treatment orders (CTOs), where supervised treatment is given in the local community.

People’s mental health struggles are real and deserve serious attention.

The report concludes that the lack of staffing and beds has resulted in isolation, poor quality of care and poor access to treatment for people with mental health needs.

Politicians must choose their words carefully

We wholeheartedly agree that a conversation about mental health is needed - because people’s mental health struggles are real and deserve serious attention.

That conversation needs to improve the quality of the discussion and reduce the stigma around mental health. It also needs to address the intertwined issues of poverty, adequate benefits and good work. It’s a complex balance, but one we must strive to achieve.

Politicians and commentators really must choose their words carefully, so we address the mental health crisis and make things better - not taking the huge step back we are in danger of doing.

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