Sharon is President of Washington Mind, and was asked to speak to their meeting.
Thank you very much
It’s great to be here today, and a real honour to have been asked to be the President of Washington Mind.
From what I have seen, the discussions today have been extremely useful, and I am greatly looking forward to joining you at future events like this.
Debt is a growing issue across society, and the people who always suffer the most – particularly because of higher interest rates and lack of alternatives – are the least well-off; those who are literally borrowing to make ends meet, or feed their family, rather than those with a shopping habit, who many people instantly think of when you talk about personal debt.
But, it’s not just those on low incomes who feel the pressure – at a time of rising unemployment and various other factors conspiring to squeeze household budgets, debt is a real prospect even for people an outsider might believe to be “comfortably” well off.
Looking back at the In the Red report that Mind published a few years ago, it is clear that not enough has been done to meet the recommendations that the report sets out.
Labour members are actually campaigning at the moment against the rip-off payday loan companies which, although they’ve always been around, have really proliferated since Mind’s report came out – largely due to a combination of the financial crisis and its after-effects hitting household incomes, as well as, what can only be described as, aggressive and misleading marketing strategies.
You can barely go a day without seeing an advert for one of those companies – many of which have been banned by the Advertising Standards Authority for trivialising payday lending and not displaying the actual rate of interest, which can exceed 4,000%.
These adverts seep into the consciousness, and suggest that for many (even though there may be credit unions operating locally, or other lenders who they owe money to, who may be able to help them out) getting one of these high-interest loans seems like the best and easiest option. But, all too often, it can be the catalyst for a debt struggle turning into a debt crisis.
Recent research by R3, a group which represents debt advisors, showed that nearly a third of people who took out pay-day loans had to get another to pay it off, and that around three and a half million Brits are expected to take one out during the first half of this year.
This is a very real problem, which is why I'm backing the campaign led by Stella Creasy MP to impose a cap on consumer credit interest rates. That campaign has led the government to commission research into the impact of doing so, although as yet, there is no commitment to use that research to regulate when it’s completed.
Evidence from other countries shows, that those with caps on credit have lower levels of illegal loan-sharking, or a thriving payday-loans market - but crucially, they also have more affordable credit available for their citizens.
I know that Stella will continue to campaign on this, and so will I.
It’s quite serendipitous that I am also able to come here today and talk about a concerted increase in focus within the Labour Party when it comes to mental health.
Our Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham gave a speech on Tuesday entitled ‘Rethinking mental health in the twenty-first century’, and I talked to him about it later that day.
There were three key messages in Andy’s speech; the first, and most important one, was that if the NHS’s purpose is to support people to live full and economically-active lives, and if it is to be sustainable in the 21st century, then mental health must move from the edges to the centre of the NHS.
When estimates suggest that one in four hospital in-patients have a mental health problem, I could not agree more that promoting good mental health should not just be on a par with other important public health priorities, such as tackling obesity and problem drinking, but integrated within those priorities, as problems like this can often go hand in hand, with one potentially leading to the other.
Second, we can no longer look at people’s physical health, mental health and social care as three separate systems, but as part of one vision for a modern health-care system.
This approach really takes us back to the definition of health when the NHS was set up, as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.
We lived in a different time back then, when you were probably more likely to get injured at work than you were to become overweight or develop depression, but Andy is absolutely correct when he says that the NHS “nationally” hasn’t really adapted to the changing nature of society, the lives we lead, and the threats to our health that arise because of those changes.
His third message was one which we have heard time and again, but its importance won’t diminish until its goal has been fulfilled.
We can only successfully change the orientation of the NHS and other public services if attitudes towards mental health across the country can be changed.
The UK is one of the most tolerant societies in the world in many areas, but sadly the stigma of mental illness still persists.
There’s a great advertising campaign from the “Time to Change” campaign, which I believe Mind is involved in, on TV and across Twitter and Facebook, etc, at the moment which seeks to change that – the guy who returns to work after being off because of mental health issues, and his colleague who feels he has to tread on eggshells when talking to him, and runs through a series of bizarre reactions in his head.
It’s a great campaign because, apart from being humorous, it’s got a simple message – people you work with, your friends, your relatives – basically, anyone you know, can be affected by mental illness. They don’t suddenly become people “to be afraid of”, or “to avoid” – if anything, they need your friendship more than ever.
Hopefully that campaign can change a lot of people’s attitudes, because the more we talk about these things openly, the better things will become for those suffering or recovering from mental health problems.
All three of those messages are ones which I hope the government will take on board – I know that Andy is a great campaigner when he has the bit between his teeth, and he won’t want to wait until after the next election, or whenever it is that Labour returns to power, to force improvements in how the NHS caters for mental health.
He makes a particularly strong case for a shifting of research resources towards mental health.
Mental health research receives just 6.5% of total funding in the UK, compared with 25% for cancer, 15% for neurological diseases and 9% for cardiovascular conditions.
When the experts say that one in four of us will experience a mental health problem in our lifetime, and that mental ill-health will soon cost the country around £105 billion per annum, we urgently need to re-examine that ratio.
In my own role as Shadow Minister for Children and Families, I am responsible for scrutinising the government’s early intervention policies, and part of that includes targeted children’s mental health services.
The last Government committed lots of funding to the targeted mental health in schools pathfinder, which was shown to improve the self-reported mental health of children, and was well-received by parents and professionals involved.
As with so many other health and cognitive issues, it showed that targeted intervention with a child beginning to show signs of mental health issues, or who may be at risk because of factors at home or elsewhere, can significantly reduce the risk of that child developing more serious issues further down the line.
I would be interested to know if anyone here had any experience of that programme and what their thoughts on it and its impact were, but, I firmly believe that early intervention is the key if we hope to reduce the incidence of mental health problems – not just in children and young people, but in adults too.
So, as Andy argues that more resources and professionals should be channelled in the direction of mental health treatment and research, I will be arguing for a big chunk of that research to go into how best to intervene early.
Thank you again to Washington Mind for inviting me along to speak today. I look forward to a long-lasting relationship with the organisation, and helping you to both improve the lives of my constituents struggling with mental health issues; coupled with campaigning for government action to improve both preventive measures and treatment.