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‘Mental Health is the Elephant in the Room When It Comes to Prioritising Economic Growth’

Charities have accused the Government of making ‘unsafe and frankly irresponsible’ decisions concerning mental health

Jeremy Hunt
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt. Photo: PA/Alamy

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Despite mental health being arguably the most significant health crisis facing the UK, Jeremy Hunt didn’t mention it once during his Spring Budget.

One in four people in the UK are affected by mental health, with mental illness costing the country an estimated £118 billion annually – equivalent to 5% of GDP.

According to NHS data, the number of people in contact with mental health services has increased by almost 500,000 since 2020.

For these reasons, mental health charities did not welcome the Budget.

Mind was particularly critical of the decision not to commit more funding to the roll-out of ‘Right Care, Right Person’, an initiative that aims to ensure that the right agency deals with health-related calls, rather than police forces being the default first responders.

“It is simply impossible to take a million hours of support out of the system without replacing it with investment,” the charity said. “Failing to properly fund NHS mental health crisis services while instructing police forces to step back from mental health calls is an unsafe and frankly irresponsible decision.”

Given that the NHS is facing extreme challenges in almost every aspect of its running, it does not have the capacity to handle the increasing number of people in the UK reaching crisis point with their mental health.

The Budget promised to deliver an NHS productivity plan, by making its technology more efficient and reducing healthcare time on admin. While this may ease time pressure for healthcare workers, it is not focused enough to address the broader, more systemic issue of underfunding and under-resourcing.

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A recent British Medical Association report highlights an additional problem: mental health professionals are becoming so disillusioned that they are unable to work themselves. In September 2023, one in seven medical posts in NHS mental health trusts were vacant.

According to a report shared with The Independent on March 25, emergency departments are so overwhelmed, A&E staff are unable to look after the most vulnerable mental health patients or treat them with compassion. According to medical records, more than 40% of patients who needed emergency care due to self-harm or suicide attempts received no compassionate care, the newspaper reported.

It appears as if the Conservatives view our mental health crisis as a primarily financial burden, reprimanding the growing population of people out of work, many for mental ill-health.

The Autumn 2023 Budget, for example, announced the Government’s plan for short-term changes to how the Department for Work and Pensions classifies who is fit to work. It proposed stricter sanctions for people previously deemed unable to work, potentially pushing those who are too mentally unwell back into work to avoid losing access to support.

The driving force for these changes seems to be primarily one of labour, productivity, and money rather than addressing the underlying socio-economic factors such as, but not exclusively, racism, homelessness, poverty, and sexism.

People under 25 seem to bear the brunt of these pressures.

A week before Hunt’s Budget, Young Minds delivered an open letter to the Chancellor, signed by 15,000 campaigners, urging the Government to invest in early intervention hubs for young people struggling with mental health.

Meanwhile, a new report published by the Children’s Commissioner showed that more than a quarter of a million children and young people are awaiting mental health support, and referrals for under-18s are up by 53%.

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According to the Mental Health Foundation, 50% of mental health conditions emerge by the age of 15 and 75% by 24, so early intervention could help prevent severe mental health issues which may impact work and life quality into adulthood.

Responding the the Budget, Laura Bunt, chief executive at YoungMinds said, “Ultimately, until we focus on the systemic drivers of poor mental health, we will be fighting a broken system. We need a plan that works across Government, one that prioritises early intervention and prevention; we need this Government to wake up and take steps to stop this crisis from getting worse.”

The Government has also repeatedly fallen short on promises to deliver on mental health reform.

A previous commitment to a 10-year mental health plan to “level-up mental health across the country and put mental and physical health on an equal footing” was scrapped and absorbed into a ‘Major Conditions Strategy’. That aimed to tackle wider ill-health and removed the focus on mental health.

Recently announced National Insurance cuts will also do little to help those with low incomes, providing almost no support for those on the lowest threshold. Financial insecurity is a crucial indicator of poor mental health. Children from the poorest 20% of households in England are almost four times more likely to have serious mental health difficulties by age 11 than those from the wealthiest 20%.

Fazilet Hadi, head of policy at Disability Rights UK, told Byline Times that the Budget “totally ignored the deepening poverty and lack of support being experienced by millions of disabled people, including those experiencing mental distress”.

“There are to be no further cost of living payments and the Household Support Fund, which enables councils to give discretionary payments, is only extended by six months,” she added.

The burgeoning mental health crisis is evident, with a high cost to the long-term productivity and growth the Conservative Party desires. Unless the Government prioritises mental health service funding and effective measures supporting the young and most vulnerable are in place, the crisis will only get worse.

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