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Right minds

12 May 2017

ONE of the first concrete pledges of the General Election campaign concerned mental health. The Conservative Party said last weekend that, if elected, it would employ 10,000 more NHS mental-health staff by 2020. No one in their right mind would cavil at a plan to improve care for the mentally ill, even if the figure had a little of the implausibility of a Diane Abbott announcement or a slogan on the side of a Brexit bus. Had there been any real calculation behind it, the number would surely have been less rounded. Also, all the funding talked about has been announced before. Voters could be forgiven for asking why it takes an election to extract such a promise from a party that has been in power for seven years, either on its own or in a coalition — during which time spending by NHS mental-health trusts fell by eight per cent in real terms.

The Mental Health Foundation writes: “Although we have made great strides in the health of our bodies and our life expectancy, we now need to achieve the same for the good health of our minds.” After an extensive survey, it reports that current levels of good mental health are “disturbingly low”. Nearly two-thirds of the UK population say that they have experienced mental-health problems. In contrast, only 13 per cent report living with high levels of good mental health.

Providing more resources will be difficult. Mental healing is a complex skill, and the support structures that exist for therapists are evidence of the demands that it makes on practitioners. The difficulty of retaining staff is one reason that the Conservative pledge will do little more than replace staff who have left. Figures supplied by the Health Minister, Philip Dunne, show that the number of nurses working in mental health in England is falling at a rate of more than 1000 a year: from 45,384 in 2010 to 38,774 in July 2016.

But this is only part of the response that we should be seeking from the next government. Defence is a good analogy: it is the duty of a government to ensure that its armed forces are equipped to protect the nation. Its chief task, though, is to create and maintain peace, so that these forces are never needed. So it is with mental-health provision. There are many factors beyond the Government’s control, but there is a clear correlation between ill health and low income: nearly 75 per cent of people living in the lowest household-income bracket report having experienced a mental-health problem, compared with 60 per cent in the highest bracket. For people out of work, the figure is 85 per cent.

Yes, the number and spread of trained professionals must increase. The range of treatment options needs to widen, too, after the closure of too many residential centres. But the better path is prevention. A government committed to alleviating poverty will discover that its policies have a beneficial effect on the well-being of its citizens.

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