With a strong focus on prevention, the mental health taskforce report could prove pivotal in creating a mentally healthier nation.
It is well known that there is a disparity in resources between physical and mental health. But it’s not only in funding that mental health lags behind, it’s also in approach. As efforts to improve cancer survival rates show, care and treatment in physical health has for decades focused on preventing and diagnosing physical problems early. This approach must be mirrored in mental health.
However, the focus of the debate on mental health is mostly on acute care, as was seen last week when Lord Crisp published his independent commission report. This is understandable: it is a real problem that needs to be resolved. But the lack of access to acute mental health services is a symptom of the mental health crisis, not its cause. The cause is the failure to prevent, where possible, mental health problems from developing in the first place.
The fight for a mentally healthier nation has now gained momentum. In recent years there has been a growing focus on the impact of poor mental health. Sensitive and helpful media coverage has increased, as highlighted by the Guardian’s This is the NHS and the BBC’s In the Mind series. And politicians across the spectrum have worked together to push the issue up the public policy agenda. Stigma is beginning to break down.
Now this increased profile of mental health needs to be translated into change. So Monday’s mental health taskforce’s report The Five Year Forward View for Mental Health could prove pivotal. In setting out a new five year strategy for the NHS in England, it highlights both the need to address acute care and the need for more emphasis on prevention. It provides for a Prevention Concordat programme (essentially an agreement) that will enable all health and wellbeing boards to support local needs and produce mental health prevention plans.
The taskforce report hits home when it says “prevention matters – it’s the only way that change can be achieved”. Beyond the economic cost of £105bn a year, poor mental health is destroying lives. Providing the right range of support, including prevention, can turn the tide of the mental health crisis.
The evidence is clear that prevention is the answer to better mental health and wellbeing. What’s more, prevention is the public’s top priority as the engagement consultation that fed into the taskforce report highlighted.
In practice, this means that we need to do more to embed good mental health within the population at large and particularly in at -risk groups. Specifically we welcome the taskforce’s recommendations that the Department of Health should appoint a champion to tackle mental health inequalities within health and social care systems and encourage cross-government action. Part of their remit will be to improve the experience of care for people from black and minority ethnic communities by using a patients and carers race equality standard.
However, inequalities experienced by groups with high rates of mental health problems, not covered by equality legislation, such as people living in poverty and homeless people, must also be addressed. So much can be done to improve the quality of people’s lives if they get support and care when they first need it. For most people experiencing long term mental health problems this will be in childhood, when symptoms first emerge.
In highlighting the importance of prevention The Five Year Forward View for Mental Health marks a turning point. But pressure must be maintained to ensure the change it calls for actually happens. With the support of the right government policies we will have the best chance of keeping ourselves mentally well.
This article first appeared on ‘The Guardian’ on 17 February 2016.