Party leaders compete over who cares most about mental health - why it matters
Today’s front pages may be dominated by the Budget, but something else happened in Parliament yesterday, which may not have grabbed the headlines but was really quite extraordinary.
Labour leader Ed Miliband used Prime Ministers Questions to question David Cameron on mental health cuts. During the exchange, both leaders acknowledged that there is a way to go before mental health is treated equally to physical health by the NHS.
The conversation between leaders was unusually measured, very different to the combative style we’re used to seeing in the chamber.
Even more significantly, for the very first time, the Prime Minister spoke publicly about his commitment to putting mental health on an equal footing with physical health services. While he didn’t talk about cuts to funding, he did acknowledge that there is work to do. He said that the Government has the money and that the NHS should equally value mental and physical health. He closed by saying that Ed Miliband “is absolutely right that a culture change in favour of mental health and helping with mental health problems is still needed in the way the health service works. On that, there can be all-party support.”
Ed Miliband highlighted our recent letter to the Guardian, warning that mental health services are at breaking point. He raised recent evidence which shows that the situation on the ground for people with mental health problems is very troubling. He called Parliament’s attention to the negative impact current decisions about money and services are having on people’s lives, as well as the significant economic cost to society. He pointed out the stark fact that spending on mental health is declining for the first time in a decade, despite rising demand.
Cross-party consensus – such as what we saw yesterday - is highly unusual, especially in the run-up to a General Election where politicians are vying for our attention by telling us how their concerns match ours and how different they are from one another.
Party leaders agreeing with each other about how committed they are to mental health may feel irrelevant for people who are struggling right now to get even basic treatment for their mental health problems – but this exchange is important. It’s meaningful because it clearly shows that what we and other leading mental health organisations are saying has hit the conscience of the establishment. People affected by mental illness are suffering because of choices the system is making, in direct contradiction to what the Government and political leaders are saying should happen.
In the run-up to the General Election in 2015 we will increasingly hear politicians talk about their priorities. We have now heard unequivocal political commitment to mental health care. That puts us campaigners in a much stronger position, as we can hold politicians to account for the decisions they both making and overseeing which are directly impacting on the lives of people affected by mental illness.
But burning questions remain. What will each of the parties do about this and how quickly will they act? In the meanwhile, will political leadership tackle the fact that decisions are being taken which fly in the face of their commitment to improving mental health services? Just how much longer do people affected by mental illness have to wait just to be treated fairly?
Click here to read a full transcript of the session