The government’s new mental health action plan looks great on paper, but now it needs firm commitments and funding to drive it forward and to ensure it doesn’t go the same way as the 2011 mental health strategy.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg sounded bullish yesterday as he announced a new mental health action plan, designed to “bring mental health out of the shadows and to give people with mental health conditions the support they need and deserve.”
His call to action ticked all the right boxes. Transform outdated attitudes? Check. Mountain to climb? Check. All have to work together to achieve change? Check. Can’t argue with any of that.
Likewise, the mental health action plan itself, which outlines 25 priorities the government wants health and care services to take forward, also sets out much of what campaigners have been hoping for. The plan, it is hoped, will make a real difference to the lives of people with mental health conditions and mean that the system is fairer for people with mental ill health.
On the face of it, the measures outlined in the plan could well make a positive difference for people with mental ill health. For instance, the introduction of waiting time standards for mental health services from 2015 – giving mental health patients the same rights as someone with a physical health problem – is long overdue. This should begin to address the postcode lottery that people face when waiting for things like talking therapies. Although, while there may be standard waiting time targets it doesn’t necessarily mean they will be adhered to.
Likewise, the pledge to ensure children with mental health problems get more support – including an aim to roll out talking therapies for children and young people to the whole country by 2018 and to provide better support for children moving from adolescent services into adult services – is also long overdue. Research has shown that many adults who experience mental ill health first became ill in childhood or adolescence, so early intervention can help to prevent more serious problems occurring down the line.
But while the action plan sounds great, so did the mental health strategy No Health Without Mental Health when it was published to much hoopla nearly three years ago. That strategy has failed to deliver on its promises – not helped by the implementation plan for it taking nearly 18 months to appear – and mental health services have not made the leap forward that was hoped for. This, presumably, is also one of the reasons for the launch of the action plan.
With this in mind, I worry that this action plan may go the same way as the strategy. As Paul Jenkins, chief executive of Rethink Mental Illness, said: “warm words will only get us so far.”
What are needed are clear commitments and timescales for the 25 action points – and detail on what form the work on each will take. Jenkins has already voiced concerns about the vagueness in the plan as to exactly how its aims will be achieved.
Additionally, and this is the biggest elephant in the room, I can’t see the action plan working without additional investment in mental health services. With investment in mental health having fallen by 2.3% in real terms in the past two years, according to the Health and Social Care Information Centre, a turnaround in policy is clearly needed.
But with the government’s austerity programme continuing, any significant increase in mental health spending seems unlikely at best.
So, while the action plan, backed up by Clegg’s rallying words, sound like exactly what is needed, we have all been here before. Therefore, sadly, I will believe in the plan only when I see it happen. But I genuinely hope my misgivings are proved unfounded.