Dan Parton cutAs headlines go, it is a shocking one: More than 30,000 people with mental ill health die needlessly every year. So why wasn’t this major headline news last week?

Think about it: 30,000 people. That’s pretty much the same number  who watched Southampton beat Crystal Palace in the Premier League last weekend. It is a lot of people. And a lot of people who should still be here who aren’t – their deaths could be have been prevented, and that’s what makes the figures so horrifying.

These stark statistics from Rethink Mental Illness’ report ‘Lethal Discrimination’ should have been the leading mental health story of last week, but it was overtaken by the furore surrounding Asda and Tesco’s Halloween costumes, called ‘mental patient’ and ‘psycho ward’ respectively.

While the supermarkets’ costumes were both appalling – you have to wonder if nobody along the development and production chain thought that it might be a teeny tiny bit offensive to people with mental ill health – and demonstrated how far we have to go to successfully tackle the scourge of mental health stigma in this country.

Of course, the media latched onto the story, given that it involved two major retailers. That attention was deserved too, because neither costume should have gone on sale. Fortunately, the criticism Asda ad Tesco received from the media and general public saw them both withdraw the costumes quickly, and make profuse apologies.

But it meant that the serious story about needless deaths got swamped when it should have had equal billing in the headlines. Would it have got lost if it was about older people?
Rethink Mental Illness’ report showed how people with mental ill health are more likely to die from preventable physical illnesses than the rest of the population – yet their physical health is often ignored by healthcare professionals.

For example, more than 40% of all cigarettes are smoked by people with mental illness, but they are less likely to be given support to quit. Meanwhile, less than 30% of people with severe mental illness get a basic annual physical health check. Rethink Mental Illness also found that some health professionals fail to take people with mental illness seriously when they raise concerns about their physical health.

Shocking stuff. Why there still seems to be this perception among some healthcare professionals that mental and physical health concerns are not interlinked mystifies me, given the weight of evidence out there to say that they are.

It also demonstrates again that while we hear regularly about the need to/aim of providing integrated healthcare services, actually getting that to happen on the ground everywhere is going to take a long time.

I agree with Rethink Mental Illness’ call for Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to make a specific commitment to address this issue in the premature mortality strategy, which is due to be published in the autumn – so, in theory, soon. As I’ve said in other blogs, it’s often the case that directives from central government are needed to focus the minds of those in charge of delivering change.

Paul Jenkins, Rethink Mental Illness’ chief executive, summed things up succinctly: “By not acting, the government is allowing some of the most vulnerable people in our society to be treated as second class citizens. We know what the solutions are and they are not complex or expensive. All we need now is the political will to make change happen.”

With so much talk about the stigma associated with mental ill health in the past week, putting in place policies to prevent avoidable deaths would be another valuable step towards equality of treatment, which, in turn, would help to tackle that stigma by showing that mental illness is every bit as serious as physical illness.