The tide is turning for mental health

Paul Farmer, chief executive of mental health charity Mind, calls on the next government to guarantee shorter waiting times for those in need of therapeutic support


Paul Farmer - MIND CEO

An estimated one in four people will experience a mental health problem in any given year. Despite this high prevalence, there is still a stigma surrounding mental health, which can prevent people seeking help.

Nowhere do people worry more about talking about mental health than at work. We all have mental health and many of us experience stress in our jobs. But most people are reluctant to disclose problems, fearing that they’ll be perceived as weak or incapable.

A 2014 Mind poll found that only 5 per cent of workers who had taken time off due to stress told their employer that they were too stressed to work. The rest gave a different reason for their absence, such as a headache. Employers need to create open, honest environments where staff feel able to talk about mental health in the same way they could discuss a physical health problem.

Employers are increasingly recognising the value of supporting staff wellbeing. Organisations that promote staff wellbeing are rewarded in terms of increased staff morale and productivity, and decreased sickness absence. Small, inexpensive changes, such as offering flexible working hours, buddy systems, employee assistance programmes (confidential phone support), social events and regular catch-ups with managers, can make a huge difference and save businesses a great deal of money in the long run.

Despite certain businesses addressing poor staff wellbeing, we still hear from people whose employers aren’t supportive and even from those who have been dismissed because of their mental health.

With cuts to legal aid making it difficult to get help, demand for Mind’s confidential legal helpline has rocketed. From May 2012 to May 2013, advisers received 675 calls, which shot up to 1,029 between May 2013 and May 2014. In response to increasing demand, we’ve recently launched a range of online publications, including Discrimination at work, which explain in a simple and practical way what people’s legal rights are, and what they can do to assert them.

Stigma and discrimination can permeate all aspects of life, including work, healthcare settings and even with friends and family. In 2007, Mind, together with Rethink Mental Illness, launched Time to Change, England’s most ambitious programme to end the stigma and discrimination faced by people with mental health problems.

With funding from the Department of Health, Comic Relief and Big Lottery Fund, Time to Change has reached millions of people and has seen a significant improvement in public attitudes. Recent data shows that since 2011 an estimated two million people – or 4.8 per cent of the population – have improved attitudes towards people with a mental illness. It also shows there was a 2.8 per cent improvement in attitudes between 2012 and 2013, the biggest annual shift in the last decade.

Attitudes are starting to change, and there is greater awareness and understanding of mental health, but we still have a way to go.

The role of high-profile individuals speaking out about their own mental health shouldn’t be underestimated. They help normalise mental health problems by talking about their own experiences living with a mental health problem. Soaps, dramas and documentary-makers are also turning more frequently to storylines involving a character with a mental health problem which, if done in the right way, can be enormously powerful. Many people who take the first step by getting in touch with organisations including Mind do so as a result of viewing such a programme or seeing a celebrity speaking out.

Evidence suggests that mental health problems are on the rise. Since the start of the recession, Mind’s confidential information support line, Mind Infoline, has received an increasing number of enquiries, while visitors to our website are also on the rise. Antidepressant prescriptions dispensed in England topped 50 million for the first time in 2012 and continue to increase year on year.

Mental wellbeing depends on many factors, including employment status, working conditions and financial security. It’s no coincidence that mental health services are overstretched at a time when many are facing increased poverty, job loss, lack of access to benefits and a lack of appropriate care.

REMAINING PROBLEMS

While it’s good that mental health problems are being taken more seriously and stigma is lessening, the people we work with still face a number of challenges. There’s been a lot of rhetoric around achieving “parity of esteem” between physical and mental health, but this is still an aspiration.

After years of chronic underfunding, cuts are still being made to mental health services despite increasing demand. A recent survey by the We Need to Talk coalition found that one in ten people had waited over a year for talking therapy, which wouldn’t happen if you were waiting for treatment for a physical health problem.

It’s no coincidence that mental health services are overstretched at a time when many are facing increased poverty, job loss, lack of access to benefits and a lack of appropriate care

With the general election looming, Mind has produced a manifesto, Take Action for Better Mental Health, setting out our recommendations for whoever forms the next government. This includes committing to maximum waiting times like those for physical health. We need safe, speedy access to urgent care in a crisis and an end to bed shortages which often mean people who are acutely unwell are detained in police cells.

Above all, we desperately need to see mental health get its fair share of funding. Ultimately, uncomfortable and unrealistic as it may seem in the current climate, investment in mental health services to bring them up to a basic standard is crucial. Fixing these issues is vital if we are to end the stigma associated with having a mental health problem.