Politics and mental health promises

This could be the first “mental health” election. A topic often spurned as too taboo, too obscure, not a vote-winner, has, without precedent, been at the centre of the parties’ campaigns. Nick Clegg has labelled the state of mental healthcare in the NHS as “unacceptable”, with Ed Miliband calling it the “biggest unaddressed health challenge of our age.” Why this sudden turnaround? It possibly comes in recognition of the work of activists to combat stigma and to address the inequality in funding between physical and mental health. More cynically, penny-pinching politicians might be more inclined to pay attention to the links between untreated mental illness and worker productivity. Whatever the reason may be, it is useful to compare the parties’ manifesto promises and proposed spending on mental health treatment.

The Liberal Democrat and Green manifestoes offer the most detail on the issue of mental health. The Lib Dems, uniquely, mention it on the very front cover of their manifesto, promising “equal care for mental health”. Inside the document, they vow to “tailor” work experience placements for the mentally ill and to provide mental health training for foster carers and as well as better treatment for teenagers with eating disorders. In terms of the NHS, they promise £500 million investment in equalising waiting time standards with physical health and annual increases to the budget dedicated to mental health; six weeks’ maximum waiting time for therapy and £250 million for children’s mental health services are some of the changes pledged. For society at large they support a “national wellbeing strategy”, public mental health campaigns, working more closely with employers on the issue and a £50 million investment in research. Finally, the Lib Dems insightfully acknowledge the links between mental health and crime, backing mental health experts in courts and prisons and pledging more mental health help for offenders under 21.

The Green manifesto, in contrast to Lib Dem silence on the issue, recognises the correlation between austerity and mental illness. Their manifesto explicitly draws connections between poverty, welfare cuts, Atos tests and mental illness, and they offer, as with many other issues, a radical prescription. Real increases in mental health spending are promised, as are a maximum of 4 weeks’ wait before talking therapies, access to quality care 24/7 for people having a “crisis”, and a right to a mental health bed in your own NHS Trust. The Greens also want an anti-stigma campaign, special attention for minorities’ mental health issues, and “personalised job-seeking support” for those with mental illness. It is an ambitious manifesto, although sometimes unsure about the funding’s source.

UKIP’s manifesto had the most to prove after the remarks of one of their activists that ADHD was “a load of psychobabble”, but they too laid out their policies, which include increasing mental health spending by £150 million annually as part of a broader £1.5 billion investment in mental health and dementia services. They vowed to fight mental health stigma, and to provide long-term patients with better information about the services available, direct access to mental health treatment for pregnant women and mothers, and a veteran service card fast tracking access to NHS mental healthcare. Possibly mindful of their audience, there is nothing on mental health treatment for adolescents.

Disappointingly, the two main parties, the Conservatives and Labour, have very little detail on mental health in their manifestoes. The Tories promise mental health support for those in welfare as well as community and health-based places for those suffering crises – outside of a police cell. There are pledges of parity in importance and funding between mental and physical health, more therapists throughout the country, reduced waiting times, and support for mothers during and after pregnancy.

Labour’s pledges are equally as brief, though with some interesting additions. There is a more holistic approach, integration of all health services around the individual getting a mention. Labour promises a positive “right” to psychological therapies, NHS staff training and a unique focus on children’s mental health. They support more of the mental health budget being spent on children, as well as mindfulness training for the young and a strategy so that all children might be able to access counselling services in school. For both of the main parties, funding, numbers, and links between poverty and mental illness are largely ignored or skimmed over.

There are hopeful signs that politicians are finally taking mental illness seriously as the tragedy it is for individuals and the loss it represents to the economy. Connections are being made between short-term, opportunistic cuts and the disaster that they can leave behind for the most vulnerable of people. It is incumbent on us all to hold them to account for the decisions they make and how these decisions influence our mental health.