Mental Health – we need talk and action

The Duke of Cambridge talking to pop star Lady Gaga about PTSD and Prince Harry’s open admission that he struggled with grief after the death of his mother have rightly made the news. High-profile campaigns like Heads Together have an important role to play in raising awareness and reducing the stigma related to mental ill health. It’s common, now, to find a public figure talking about problems they have faced and in some cases still face. It’s talk, and it’s effective, but it can only be effective so far. We can’t solve all the problems of mental ill health with talk. We need investment and action too.

At the end of March, NHS England Chief Simon Stevens announced changes to mental healthcare provision: more availability of talking therapies, improved services and extra inpatient beds for the young, an increase in the number of accident and emergency units with specialist staff, and dedicated mental health services for military veterans. This is all good news, but we know that these aims have to be delivered within an NHS that is under severe funding pressure.  Figures from the King’s Fund think tank show that 40% of mental health trusts had a fall in their funding in the 2015/16 financial year.

Funding crises are not news, but they are the reality and they’re not something that can be solved with a hashtag and a celebrity campaign – although maybe we’re being too limited in our thinking. The problem with these initiatives is that they focus on openness and awareness but not on action. That’s not a criticism. It’s an observation.  Diverting attention towards the huge numbers of people struggling to cope without professional help, doesn’t help those already being cared for by an underfunded and badly stretched service.

Mental health is slowly moving from its position as the ‘ignored’ sector in NHS provision, but there is still a huge amount to be done. Getting outpatient treatment can help people to avoid becoming inpatients, and encouraging people to seek help is an important first step, but we have the legacy of mental health stigma to deal with first – the history of underfunding, the outdated facilities and the sheer lack of beds.

Every time a spending decision is made within the NHS there’s a risk that the resources procured will fail to help mental healthcare to make progress. There are too many short-term solutions and poorly understood choices that don’t suit the needs of the vulnerable service user. But with every spending decision, there is also an opportunity to improve things, and not necessarily by spending more, but by spending more wisely.

That’s never been more important, because in the short-term at least, a publicity campaign aimed at getting people to talk about their mental health is likely to increase the demand for support. Let’s not the mistake of thinking that talk and openness can solve everything. We need talk, but we need action to back it up.

Heads Together is a great name for a campaign. At our annual conference next month, we’ll be putting our own heads together to improve mental health. Come and join us.