Opinion: It is time to hardwire mental health and mental wellbeing into all public policy - Kevan Jones MP

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It is time to hardwire mental health and mental wellbeing into all public policy - both at a national and local level - Kevan Jones, MP for North Durham

The Government must consider a more joined-up approach to tackle mental illness.

Much progress has been made in recent years to address the stigma concerning mental health and the issue is now clearly on the political agenda. Parliament now regularly debates the issue, most recently discussing women’s mental health. The debate usually returns to the subject of the NHS budgets and the funding of mental health or lack of it. This concentration on NHS funding though important misses a fundamental point  which is adding  to our country’s mental health crisis and pressure on the NHS. That is the failure of policy makers to hardwire mental health into wider public policy.

Policy decision made across Government without thinking about their impact on the nations mental health are not only affecting individual’s mental health but leading to increased costs to the taxpayer and burdens on the NHS. Disproportionate cuts in local government funding have led to many local authorities cutting funding to community and voluntary organisation. Many of these organisations play I vital part not only supporting people in the community with mental health conditions but prevent them arising. Local lunch clubs for example in many communities are important for the elderly preventing them becoming socially isolated. They may not be considered part of our mental health services, but I would argue they play a key part of the prevention agenda.

Another example of where poor policy decisions are increasing the mental health burden is in the area of welfare reforms. The work capability test designed to judge individual’s ability to work takes little or no consideration of those living with mental health conditions. It is framed around a number of descriptors which assess individual’s physical health, resulting in those with mental conditions usually failing the tests and being deemed fit for work. From my experience of constituency cases this leads to huge anxiety for individuals and in some cases leads to demands on the NHS as their managed mental health condition deteriorates. In one individual case I know of, a lady was sectioned after failing her work capability test only to have her benefit reinstate on appeal. This is a poor outcome for the individual and the taxpayer. Sounding tough on welfare may seem strong but the result is a system that is making the situation worse and leading to extra demands on the health service because of poor policy making.

So, what is needed? We need to agree mental health benchmarks by which a policy or spending decision are judged before they are implemented. The aim must be to ensure that policies implemented in one area of government does not increase the demands on mental health services by making an individual’s mental health worse. For example, a policy on reform of the welfare system which simply first asked the question how it will affect individuals mental health would l am convinced avoid the faults of the present system. By addressing the issue of mental health at this early stage of policy development would not only result in better policy but better outcomes for individuals and would save money in the long term.

Kevan was speaking in a House of Commons Debate for Women’s Mental Health  (October 3rd 2019).
He can be reached directly via his website: https://www.kevanjonesmp.org.uk/