The Last great Taboo? Miliband and Mental Health

Nathan Hollow

Board Director - Head of Health and Social Care - Head of South West

This morning at a Royal College of Psychiatrists event, Labour leader Ed Miliband gave a speech regarding mental health and the taboo surrounding the subject.

Reiterating the ‘One Nation’ rhetoric he used in his Party Conference speech, he noted that “One Nation means nobody is left out, or written off” and that mental health was “one of the most serious challenges our country faces.”

He continued on to criticise Jeremy Clarkson and Janet Street Porter, well known celebrities who had both made outrageous comments which only serve to reinforce the stigma of those suffering from mental ill health. Janet Street-Porter’s comments were particularly shocking, having written an article claiming that depression is “the latest must-have accessory” promoted by the “misery movement”.

He noted that there had been a change of culture over the past few decades with Aids and Cancer no longer being taboo subjects – a change that is yet to happen for mental health, but one that is needed.

Criticising the Coalition he highlighted that “for the first time in a decade we have seen a cut in total spending on mental health.”

But what should be done? Like all Opposition leaders at this stage in the electoral cycle, concrete actions and policies are hard to make, but Mr Miliband did outline several aims, including:

• Reforming the NHS to guarantee that mental health enjoys real equality of status
• Re-writing the NHS Constitution to create a new right to psychological therapies that help people recover from conditions like anxiety and depression
• Ensuring NHS staff are properly trained and equipped to treat those with mental ill health
• Working with British business to improve workplaces and helping people stay in work and make their contribution
• Working with schools to prepare children for the demands of life

This is not the first time Labour have spoken about the importance of creating parity between mental and physical health within the NHS. At the beginning of the year, newly appointed Shadow Health Secretary, Andy Burnham, spoke at a Centre for Social Justice event on the need to rethink mental health treatment in the 21st century.

Mr Burnham, like Mr Miliband today, spoke at great lengths on the importance of reducing the stigma those living with mental ill health face, noting that Britain as “a country which has so often led the world in challenging discrimination needs to recognise that we’ve got much to learn from other countries when it comes to the stigma of mental ill health.”

Today’s speech demonstrates that Labour have chosen mental health as a key policy area on which to focus their efforts throughout this Parliament and into the 2015 General Election. It is an area where they can stand apart from the Conservative Party, particularly as the Coalition has restructured the NHS but has done little to ensure that the treatment of mental health is given equal weighting alongside physical health.

Mental illness costs UK business £26bn a year, with a further cost of £10bn a year to the NHS. One in four of us are likely to suffer from one or more mental illnesses over the course of our lifetimes, and to demonstrate the wider societal issues caused by a failure to tackle mental ill health, the Prison Reform Trust report that over 70% of UK prisoners have a mental illness.

There is clearly a strong cross-party political will to improve the treatment and outcomes of those who have mental illnesses as demonstrated in today’s speech and the House of Commons mental health debate, in the summer when MPs from both sides of the House gave open and personal accounts of their own mental illnesses. But it is the Labour Party who want to lead the debate and be the party that changes mental health services for the better.

We as members of society can get the ball rolling by breaking down the stigma facing those with mental ill health, and shunning derogatory comments made public figures such as Jeremy Clarkson and Janet Street-Porter. Next time your train is cancelled due to a suicide attempt, rather than joining the chorus of sighs ringing out across the platform, take a moment to reflect on how the system has failed someone suffering from the invisible effects of mental ill health.

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