Mental health problems touch most families in our country at some time. It has certainly touched mine as I have spoken about at a MIND conference. Our attitudes to mental health have been changing - but more remains to be done - so I was glad to be able to take part in a discussion this morning with Nick Clegg MP and Norman Lamb MP (the care minister) about the Government's action plan; "Closing the Gap; priorities for essential change in mental health".
This has 25 top action points to try to achieve a change to ensure equality between mental and physical health.
Nick Clegg , fresh from having to talk about Lord Rennard rather than the mental health action plan on the Today programme, made the point that it's still difficult to discuss mental health conditions. He paid tribute to how far the mental health charities have been able to change attitudes by their campaigning. So the charity campaign "Time to change" is crucial to an attitude and culture change. "Time to bring mental health out of the shadows," he said. Absolutely right.
I raised the issue of how people with mental health problems interface with the State in our welfare system. That system has got so much worse, and this is not just about the behaviour of ATOS. The tighter and more punitive aspects of the system work against people with mental health problems who find it difficult to get into work, or keep a job down. The reality of employer attitudes to staff with mental health often means anyone being honest about their condition will face discrimination. The welfare reform changes have impacted seriously on claimants who have a serious condition. Attitudes at job centres and in ATOS etc. have hardened, and there is not enough understanding of why someone with a mental health condition may not have attended a work interview or finds it almost impossible to get a job interview at all. They are not "shirkers", yet that is how they get treated.
Norman Lamb spoke about the underlying need to change attitudes. There is an institutional bias in the NHS system, as elsewhere, against mental health. Mental health is a top priority for NHS England but the institutional bias to acute services will make this a challenge for them.
2 decades ago I chaired Tooting Bec Hospital - one of the Victorian mental asylums. I was Chair when we closed that hospital and moved resources into the community. Largely successful, though many battles had to be fought with the consultants at St Thomas' hospital who had other plans for the money!
The closure marked a changing attitude to those with mental health problems; not locked away from sight but supported in the community. Brixton has one of the highest rates of mental health problems in any community across the country, and I know first hand of the problems as my partner works in mental health at the sharp end.
Time to talk about mental health Clegg said! Which would have been good this morning but one of the media lot had to raise Rennard - she got roundly booed. Rightly so. It is a sad reflection that on the day Clegg launched this important action plan he gets confronted by a media obsessed with what is little more than an internal party matter for the Lib Dems.
Alastair Campbell, yes that one, who was there and who has bravely spoken about his own battle with depression, pointed out that it's good that Clegg talks about mental health - but to his knowledge neither Cameron nor Hunt have ever made a major speech on mental health ! A rather good point....
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