Our society’s future mental health must be at the heart of our political decisions today

Andrew Mitchell

As technology progresses, the nature of work changes and we become ever more interconnected, the challenges that we face as a more mental health-aware society become even more diverse. Whilst a key focus of mental health should be around crisis care, early intervention and proper support for those with long-term conditions, we must also consider the state of the nation’s mental health as part of a greater societal context. And our mental ill health is shaped by the conditions in which we work, live and interact.

Undoubtedly, the focus of the vision for future mental health must be for comprehensive and effective frontline and bespoke services that are properly funded and staffed. Mental health and physical health must realise the parity of esteem as part of a fully functional and well-funded health service. Services should be capable of treating both those with chronic, ongoing illness and those in need of short-term and immediate treatment. This means staff, funding, beds and a range of unique care pathways. Whilst the government’s £2bn for the creation of a 24-hour Mental Health hotline is welcome, it by no means deals with the chronic shortage of beds, the massive understaffing of vital services and a waiting list that is costing lives every single day.

Any interest in mental health as a contextual result of societal issues must therefore run concurrent to the struggle for better mental health services. But as policy makers and activists, we must consider mental ill health in much wider contexts than before. From our home lives to our work lives, the factors that contribute to poor mental health cannot be boxed off conveniently in a single policy area. For the sake of our society’s future, let’s try to see the bigger picture.

For example, in work, to which we commit over 90,000 hours over our lifetime, much more can and should be done. We need to think about how our workplaces can become healthier environments that better supports workers’ mental health. In the recent Fabian publication Minds At Work, Josh Abey and Kate Dearden recommend a review of the Equality Act “to ensure sufficient protections for those with mental health conditions”, a reform of statutory sick pay, and advocate for better training, awareness and planning on the part of the employer for employee mental ill health.

But we also need to think beyond what we can just do today. Let’s consider the benefits of a four-day working week, in which the balance between time out of work and time in work would level. How can we make sure labour is properly compensated at a rate that allows us to live without the financial anxiety that grips so many? These are the questions our movement should be asking while striving to adopt a radical new approach to our work lives that guarantees a healthy and supported workforce.

This sort of long-term approach to societal ill health cannot advance without ending the roll-out of universal credit, a policy designed to punish and condemn vulnerable people to bureaucracy and financial insecurity. We need a system that is properly funded, flexible and responsive to those who need and use it.

Teachers grappling with rising child mental health issues don’t need a larger workload and to be asked to do more with less. They must be supported with a national mental health network to which they can refer children who need the extra support, to help those that need the care on a day-to-day basis as they develop. Instead of fuelling an overheated housing market and cutting night shelter services, homelessness must be eradicated, ensuring that each and every one of us has a secure place to stay each night.

As we look to shape policy and think about the way we treat mental ill health, we must take a combined approach: both properly funding and staffing frontline mental health services for those who need them, and aiming to create a more compassionate society in which positive mental health is a goal for all its citizens.

This piece was commissioned by Labour Together, which is guest editing LabourList this week.

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