In this guest blog, Becky Moles analyses what the three main parties said about mental health in their manifestos and what this might mean post-election.
Last week the general election campaign was ramped up with the publication of the major parties’ manifestos. While no party can deliver on all of its manifesto, and pledges are kept deliberately vague to ensure the parties have room to manoeuvre at a later stage, they do give us a good idea of what might be ahead for mental health organisations and patients. All the parties have commitments to improving mental health services, but which has the best offering?
Labour were the first to publish their manifesto. Within their section on the NHS, they state that their reforms will focus on prevention and early intervention, recognising that ‘when mental health problems are not spotted early, people can deteriorate and need more intensive support’. They also commit to mental health being given the same priority as physical health, and people being given the same right to psychological therapies as they have to drugs and medical treatments.
Under a Labour government it seems children’s mental health would be prioritised. A larger proportion of the mental health budget would be diverted to children’s mental health, in order to fund training for teachers in mental health, ensure all children can access school based counselling, and to ‘encourage the development of social and emotional skills, for example through the use of mindfulness’.
Labour’s plans to ensure children are educated about mental health problems can help to ensure that discrimination against those with them does not continue in future generations. By teaching children and young people how to keep themselves healthy, and encouraging preventative solutions as well as those which catch problems early – such as trained teachers – Labour offers a logical, if narrow, approach to mental health within the next Parliament.
Unlike Labour, which had a specific section on mental health, the Conservatives encompassed mental health pledges throughout their manifesto – recognising the wide-reaching effect that mental health problems can have on different people. They recognise the impact that mental health can have on a person’s ability to work, and pledge ‘significant new support’ for mental health, which they say will benefit thousands of people claiming out-of-work benefits. They recognise that mental health crises can lead to vulnerable people being detained in police custody, and therefore commit to ensuring ‘proper provision of health and community based places of safety’. They also recognise the need for additional support needed by women during and after pregnancy.
In the past, the Conservative Party has arguably been the most resistant to embrace the need for a mental health agenda. Until now, they’ve not appeared to take the issue on board. Attitudes inside the party were highlighted in 2005 when Liam Fox made mental health a central part of his party leadership bid, and was told by one of his MP colleagues “I was going to vote for you, but not if you are going to talk about things like that. It’s not what the public want to hear about.” But after five years of coalition, the Tories are wising up and recognising not only the importance of this issue for individuals, but the financial implication for all manner of government services of poor mental health.
When the Lib Dems published the front page of their manifesto in February, the mental health sector had a collective breath of anticipation. The party had put mental health on the cover, included within their six key priorities.
It could be said that with regard to mental health, the best manifesto was saved until last – certainly in terms of the number of pages dedicated to mental health provision.
Like Labour and the Conservatives, the Lib Dems pledge to roll out access to mental health services. However, they’ve said they would put in place a waiting time of no more than six weeks for therapy for depression or anxiety, and a two-week wait for all young people experiencing a first episode of psychosis. This makes the Lib Dems the only party to differentiate between mental health conditions and make provisions on this basis. They also promise to increase access to talking therapies, ‘revolutionise children’s mental health services’, and ‘transform care for pregnant women and new mothers’.
Like the Conservatives, but more extensively so, the Liberal Democrats have peppered their manifesto with mental health pledges, throughout various sections including defence as well as justice. For example, they are the only party to specifically propose improving support for personnel and veterans with mental health problems. We also see them pledging a public health campaign promoting steps people can take to improve their own mental health, an intention to promote social prescribing of activities such as sport, and the establishment of a world-leading mental health research fund.
The upcoming election is the most uncertain in recent times. But what is certain is that the Liberal Democrats will not have a majority government after May 7 – they are currently polling at about 10%. The Lib Dems can therefore promise a lot more than the two major parties can, as they will not have to deliver on all their pledges. The best the Lib Dems can hope for is to prop up either the Conservatives or Labour in a coalition, in which case, there will be days of negotiations over what parts of the Lib Dems manifesto will be taken forward or dropped. However, the Lib Dems will no doubt be keen to make good on their promises after their u-turn on a key pledge from their 2010 manifesto on tuition fees lost them much support.
Turning a corner
Regardless of who wins in May, what we can say for sure is that a corner has been turned. In 2005, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats didn’t mention ‘mental health’ in their manifestos at all, and Labour mentioned it just three times. In 2010, ‘mental health’ was mentioned by Labour once, by the Tories twice, and four times by the Lib Dems. In contrast, the 2015 manifestos saw Labour mention the term five times, the Tories six and the Liberal Democrats a staggering 33 times.
While the parties prioritise various areas and offer varied solutions, they all commit to ensuring mental health is given the same priority as physical health. The three manifestos produced by the major decision makers show that mental health is firmly on the agenda, and this commitment by all sides is welcome.
Becky Moles is an account executive at Political Lobbying & Media Relations, who provide lobbying and PR services to mental health organisations and providers.