Sharon spoke to the Washington Mind 13:25 Conference on shaping mental health services for children and young people.
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It’s a pleasure to open today’s conference on what is such an important issue, and on World Mental Health Day.
I’m of course speaking at the end of a week in which the provision of mental health services has been all over the news, thanks to Nick Clegg making it the centrepiece of his speech to his party conference.
As politicians I think the public expect us to pick arguments with each other and criticise the other side all the time.
But I’m always more than happy to celebrate when the Government gets something right, and the announcement this week – that there’ll be waiting time targets for mental health services for the first time – is a great step forward.
It’s particularly welcome that this will include a two week waiting target for young people who are having their first episode of psychosis, to increase the chances that that first episode will also be their last.
This focus isn’t before time, of course.
Ever since the NHS was created some 66 years ago, and even though one of the bigger public health problems facing society at that time was returning soldiers mentally scarred from what they had seen and experienced on the battlefields of Europe, mental health has been on the sidelines.
And even though we’ve started talking more about mental health in the last decade or so, as organisations like Mind have done such good work on removing the stigma surrounding it, the primary focus for interventions in the NHS has always been the acute services.
We’ve ploughed literally billions into making sure that if you turn up at A&E with a fractured wrist, a broken finger or a twisted ankle, you’ll probably be seen within an hour or two, and, if you need it, you’ll probably be operated on within 48 hours.
But try going to your doctor with severe depression, and you’d be lucky to get any real help for weeks or months.
As the report from the We Need to Talk coalition which came out last month found, thousands of people – 1 in 6 - who are on the waiting list for psychological therapies attempt suicide before they’ve had their first appointment.
Four in ten said they had self-harmed, and two thirds said their condition had deteriorated.
We wouldn’t stand for that level of service for anything else, and we shouldn’t stand for it in mental health services.
Getting mental health right – making sure the resources are there as well as the knowledge and willingness of medical professionals to use them – just like getting physical health right, relieves suffering and improves lives.
And that’s not just the lives of those who are suffering from mental illness, but the lives of their families and friends as well.
In many cases, it saves lives as well.
And of course, when we’re talking about young people, prevention and early action to help those at risk of developing mental illness can completely change the course of someone’s life.
Every young person that we can keep in school, help them get qualifications, and develop healthy adult relationships, is a young person whose future is much brighter, and who will hopefully need little or no support for the rest of their lives.
For me, that’s all the reason we need for mental health to be a priority – for us to make sure we’re getting it right.
But even if you don’t care about people’s lives…
…even if all you care about is how much money we’re spending…
…then this still has to be a priority.
The Government estimates that mental health problems cost the country as much as £100 billion each year.
It’s the cost of acute mental health services.
It’s the cost of people who cause themselves physical harm, or who develop illnesses because they can’t look after themselves.
It’s the cost of people taking time off work ill, or supporting people who can’t work at all through the benefits system, and the loss of potential tax and economic capacity too.
Quite simply it’s the cost of failure, and £100bn is a pretty big bill.
If we can therefore spend just a fraction of that to avoid some of those costs, then we’re not just turning individual lives around – we’re saving everyone in society money as well.
The problem is, we’re still not really doing that.
Mental health still isn’t at the front of NHS priorities.
In fact, at a time when overall NHS budgets are being protected, mental health budgets are being cut, not increased.
The same goes for the budgets for children’s mental health services held by councils.
We’re still not getting it right.
While waiting times for CAMHS remain unacceptably long – if you’re lucky enough to be identified and put on that waiting list at all…
…while the services that are available remain unresponsive to the needs of children and young people…
…while people are having to travel for hours to access the services they do need…
…and while people – young and old – are still needing crisis services, still being detained in secure units, or still harming themselves because they didn’t get support soon enough…
…then we politicians don’t deserve to be congratulated about the fact that we’re talking more about mental health.
We deserve to continue getting a hard time from you, and from charities and organisations like Mind who work on the front line, and who know where we’re going wrong and what more needs to be done.
Because when we get a hard time, we give the Government a hard time, and that’s how things change.
Getting it right won’t be easy.
The fact that mental illness seems to be the final frontier in terms of healthcare, is probably because in many ways, it’s the hardest kind of health to rectify.
It’s not tangible, or obvious.
And that’s not just for someone looking at you – in many cases the person who is suffering from a mental illness won’t know it themselves either.
And even if they do know it, they might be worried about coming forward because of the social stigma, or they might be worried about the possibility of being sent away from their family and friends for treatment.
So if we’re going to get it right for people with mental illness – and particularly for children and young people…
…then yes, we need to improve access to treatment, and to de-mystify that treatment by fully integrating it physical health services, so that seeing a psychotherapist is seen as just the same as seeing an occupational therapist…
…but we also need to ensure that we are doing everything possible to identify those in need of that support.
That means greater training for those who will come across those with unidentified mental health problems – whether that’s teachers, GPs, health visitors, the police or social services.
Particularly in schools, I’d like to see promoting mental wellbeing being a key priority, and a key consideration when deciding on all other policies – particularly when it comes to preventing bullying.
I know some schools are really good at this, but too many aren’t, and don’t see it as something that they’re responsible for – I’d be very interested in hearing from the young people here today what their experience is or was in their schools.
If only for the fact that a young person who doesn’t have a mental health problem, or is getting the support they need to cope with it, is more likely to perform well in their exams than a young person whose needs aren’t being met, it is their responsibility, and it should be one of their priorities.
So that’s what I think needs to happen, but today is about what you – young people and those who work with them – think needs to happen.
We know that services which are shaped by the experiences of those who use them in their particular local area result in better outcomes, and often lower long-term costs.
What you’re doing today is therefore playing your part in making sure that – if only here in Sunderland – we’re getting closer to getting it right for you, and for other young people like you for years to come.
So again, it’s a pleasure to be here to listen to you having those discussions on World Mental Health Day, and I hope that I can come back in the not-too-distant future, not to say that we still need to get it right, but that we have got it right.