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Mental health – finally coming out of the shadows

I’m fairly certain that if I went out and asked the man or woman on the street which illness costs the NHS most money each year, and also costs the economy most money each year, I’d receive quite a wide range of answers.

Cancer would certainly be in there (do you know a hospital that isn’t fundraising for the latest scanner or Cyber knife?) and probably quite a few mentions of heart disease, cardiovascular and respiratory disease in various forms.  Maybe even obesity would get a mention from those who have read a few too many copies of the Daily Mail. I suspect far fewer would identify mental health problems as the right answer* but I’m hopeful that the tide is starting to turn. It seems as though people are beginning to recognise the importance of this issue and why it is so important that as a nation we finally begin to recognise and respond to mental health issues in the same way that we do to the physical health problems people experience.

Various reports produced by organisations like the Mental Health Foundation and the LSE have sought to highlight the facts about the impacts of ignoring mental health, whilst Mind and Rethink Mental Illness have been campaigning together to try and end discrimination and prejudice towards those who experience mental health problems, declaring it Time to Change.

Politicians, sports stars and celebrities have been standing up to be counted and telling their stories of mental health problems, along with increasing and improving representation of these issues in TV soaps and dramas.  Clearly, this is to be applauded, though perhaps there is a cautionary tale in here about how too much celebrity can sometimes be a bad thing: two years ago Janet Street-Porter launched a scathing attack on this emerging ‘trend’ for the rich and famous to open up about their depression, thereby highlighting one of the inherent challenges with breaking the taboo – many people who have not experienced a mental health problem simply find it impossible to envisage how someone who seemingly has it all can suffer from depression, or any other of the more common conditions.  Opening up thus risks an individual being labelled as ‘jumping on the bandwagon’, or lazy or incompetent or attention-seeking, or worse …

Ed Miliband this week reminded us of these facts when speaking to the Royal College of Psychiatrists.  He rightly highlighted that the NHS must increase funding for talking therapies and healthcare professional training in the future, and give mental health a place at the heart of its provision going forward. This echoes many of the points we found in our Talking Taboos research looking at the issue of self-harm among young people which was published last week.  Do we really want vulnerable young people to be facing a future stigmatised by the challenges of their youth, entering adulthood without having received the support and guidance to help them develop effective coping strategies?

The Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme is a small step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done, including the review of the Work Capability Assessment (incidentally introduced by the last Labour Government), which has proved particularly challenging and unsuitable for those with mental health problems.  With the right help and support, people young and old can overcome or learn to manage their mental health conditions.  But without the systems in place to encourage people to disclose their problems and seek help, and without the service provision in place to facilitate recovery, it can often become a downward spiral.

We are all too aware from our research with vulnerable adults that mental health problems often overlap and interlink with physical health problems, unemployment and other personal crises.  The impact goes far beyond the economic burden in terms of NHS costs and lost productivity.  Time and again our research shows us that people with mental health problems are often among the most marginalised and truly vulnerable in our society; often unable to engage with new developments, products and services which would benefit them as the path to participation is littered with hurdles.  Sometimes, just trying to get the right deal or the best deal or access basic entitlements can be “too much” and so as a society we need to ensure that people do not fear discrimination for disclosing their problems, and that once we know who these people are, we take active steps to eradicate the barriers to their inclusion.


*”Mental illness is a leading cause of suffering, economic loss and social problems. It accounts for over 15% of the disease burden in developed countries, which is more than the disease burden caused by all cancers.

1 In the EU at least 83 million people (27%) suffer from mental health problems (16.7 million in the UK).

2 The most common mental health problem is depression which is experienced by 8–12% of the adult population.

3 In addition, about 10% (nearly 850,000) of children and young people aged between 5–16years have mental health problems”

(HOW MENTAL ILLNESS LOSES OUT IN THE NHS – A report by The Centre for Economic Performance’s Mental Health Policy Group)


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