What Will May’s ‘Shared Society’ Mean for Mental Health?

On Monday this week Theresa May launched her ‘shared society’, the idea that will form the central hook of her government’s social reform agenda. In a speech delivered to the Charity Commission, the Prime Minister also attempted to outline what the shared society would look like in practice, choosing the issue of mental health to elucidate her approach. May outlined plans to ‘transform’ mental health care, with a realignment of priorities away from NHS treatment and towards preventative care focused on local actors; however she declined to allocate much in the way of additional funding to mental health services.

May’s speech included a series of measures designed to tackle the ‘burning injustice’ of mental illness – an issue that costs the UK £15 billion every year in reduced productivity – with particular focus on schools, employers and local communities. Improved mental health training for teachers was promised alongside increased collaboration between schools and the NHS, with a Green Paper on Children and Young People’s Mental Health to follow later this year. The Prime Minister has also tasked Lord Stevenson and Paul Farmer, CEO of Mind and Chair of the NHS Mental Health Taskforce, with establishing a partnership with employers to tackle the stigma around mental illness in the workplace.

Some limited new funding has also been allocated to mental health projects, with £15 million to be dedicated to the creation of local places of safety such as community clinics and crisis cafes; £10 million allocated to the Think Ahead programme to recruit 300 more specialist mental health social workers; and £67.7 million for new digital mental health services to help individuals diagnose their own mental health needs or the needs of their friends and family.
Finally, May declared that ‘parity means just that: parity’, pledging to hold the NHS to account and ensure that equal weight is given to mental and physical health in all clinical decisions.

The pitch makes for an easy win for May: following several weeks in which she and her government have faced strong criticism for failing to adequately deal with burgeoning crises in the NHS and in adult social care, May has seized an opportunity to burnish her centrist, One Nation credentials and tackle head-on suggestions that she does not place enough of an emphasis on public health.

Yet there was surprisingly little in the way of new funding for mental health, despite the Prime Minister’s repeated assertions that her vision for society is one in which the Government plays an active role in fighting ‘everyday injustices’, especially given that this time last year the then Prime Minister David Cameron allocated almost £1 billion to mental health services. Instead May’s announcement focused on ways in which external organisations such as schools, businesses and local community groups could help to tackle the stigma around mental illness and provide primary care.

While some commentators such as the Mental Health Foundation have praised the Prime Minister’s focus on preventative care, others – such as Neil Carmichael and Dr Sarah Wollaston, Chairs of the Education Committee and Health Committee respectively, and the UK Council for Psychotherapy – have cast doubt on the ability of existing mental health care providers to deliver the promised reforms without substantial additional funding.
Furthermore, if May truly wishes to tackle mental health problems in this country it will be necessary to place greater emphasis on acute services. While support from teachers, work colleagues and local community leaders can help to break down barriers to talking openly about mental health and identify those in need of care, those individuals with more serious and debilitating mental illnesses will require further support.

This will mean more money for more doctors, nurses and specialist care facilities. If the NHS is to carry out the Prime Minister’s wish for mental and physical health to be treated equally, then mental and physical health services will need to be funded more equitably; with the NHS already under severe financial pressure there is very little left in the system to reallocate to mental health.

It is undoubtedly positive news that mental health care is now considered a political priority: recent polling from YouGov shows that 84% of the British public believe that physical and mental health issues are equally serious. However, while the rhetoric is promising, increased funding for mental health services is needed in order to ensure that actions match up to words.

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