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I was the minister who first put mental health on the agenda and now that legacy is being betrayed by Theresa May

October 11, 2017 5:59 PM
By Norman Lamb MP in The Independent
Originally published by South Lincolnshire Liberal Democrats
Norman Lamb (Chris McAndrew [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)Additional funding secured by the Lib Dems in the last coalition Budget - £1.25bn over five years - is not all being delivered.

If governing was all about making the right noises, Theresa May would be an exceptional Prime Minister. For instance, she hit upon the crisis in social housing and promised action. We all applauded. And then found out that her actual response to this national emergency was to build 5,000 houses, dismissed by an independent expert as "chicken feed".

So too, sadly, with mental health, which as a Liberal Democrat health minister in the coalition I tried to push to the top of the political agenda. Recently the Prime Minister declared: "I've made mental health a priority precisely because there are issues. Over the years we haven't given mental health the same focus in our national health service and other services as I think is necessary."

But on World Mental Health Day, let us look at the reality. Far from building on the Liberal Democrat legacy, the Conservatives have taken a wrecking ball to it.

Additional funding secured by the Lib Dems in the last coalition Budget - £1.25bn over five years - is not all being delivered. In year one, almost half was diverted elsewhere. In year two, half of local areas fell short of what they should have spent.

Even if, for a moment, you put aside the human misery of mental ill health, this parsimonious attitude represents poor economics. Mental health problems cost 70 million days off sick a year, with one in six employees depressed. The bill? £22bn a year - eye-watering sums, and behind them often are tear-jerking stories.

But money is not the only policy failure.

Shockingly, the Care Quality Commission reported in July that there are 3,500 beds in locked mental health rehabilitation wards - a contradiction, surely? These beds are often a long way from home, leaving victims institutionalised and isolated.

The CQC also highlighted the use of force to restrain patients. Four years on from the guidance I issued as minister to end this practice, it persists in far too many places. My investigation revealed a staggering 12,347 cases of face-down restraint in a single year - 33 each day.

Yet Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights states that "no one shall be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment". The uncomfortable truth is that in Britain in 2017, many people are. Imagine having suffered abuse earlier in your life and then experiencing the physical force of face down restraint in a mental health ward. This can destroy trust and can be appallingly traumatic.

In children's mental health services, long waits and outrageous thresholds for admission are common. A father in North Norfolk told me how his teenage daughter with significant mental illness had been told that she would have to wait up to nine months to start her treatment.

And then there are those shunted across the country because there is no care available close to home.

Things are so bad that a judge had to intervene in August to demand a bed be found for a teenage girl who was acutely ill and about to be released from youth custody. The nation, he said, would have "blood on its hands" if an NHS bed could not be found.

Meanwhile, teenagers with an eating disorder are too often turned away from treatment: "Your body mass index isn't low enough." Would we turn away someone with cancer and tell them to return when their tumour had grown? Like cancer, eating disorders can kill.

And it is a scandal of our time that there are so many people in our prisons who are there, in large part, because of their mental ill health. Yet their chances of proper care and treatment are not good.

There were a catastrophic 40,000 cases of self-harm in our prisons last year. Every three days, a life was lost to suicide. Even putting aside the human cost, surely proper investment in wellbeing, education and drug rehabilitation in prison - and diverting more people away from incarceration - would ultimately save money. The recidivism rate would surely fall, rather than leaving us with one of the highest prison populations in Europe.

While chairing a commission on mental health in the West Midlands, I've proposed a "Wellbeing Premium" - a temporary discount on your business rates if you take tangible steps to improve wellbeing at work. If we can show clear, positive results from our proposed trial, then the Government should roll this out across the country.

And we should set a clear requirement that any company bidding for public contracts must demonstrate that they are a good employer, that they care for their workers. Why should we give work to corporate cowboys?

We could also make mental health awareness part of teacher training, because it is the incidence of mental illness among young people that is now so alarming.

But we cannot hide away from the uncomfortable truth that we need more resources. If Theresa May can think beyond the headlines to her legacy, she will realise government is about tackling the problem, not the publicity.

Norman Lamb is the Liberal Democrat MP for North Norfolk