What it would mean if, as a nation, we really did take mental health seriously?

Whatever the arguments over the path of deficit reduction over the past seven years, The Independent accepts that hard choices now need to be made

Saturday 04 November 2017 22:40
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There can be no pretence that we can invest in public services without everyone bearing their fair share
There can be no pretence that we can invest in public services without everyone bearing their fair share

Theresa May has said many of the right things about mental health. “If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand,” she said as she became Prime Minister last year. But, as we report today, 12 charities in the field say that the fine words need to be backed by public money in this month’s Budget.

This is not easy. The other demands on taxpayers’ money are particularly intense this year. Whatever the arguments over the path of deficit reduction over the past seven years – arguments commonly obscured by the single word “austerity” – The Independent accepts that hard choices now need to be made. Ms May was right 16 months ago to relax George Osborne’s counterproductive squeeze on public spending, and she and Philip Hammond could probably afford to relax the targets further and to borrow more over the next few years.

Even so, this would not produce the resources needed to meet all the justified demands of an impatient electorate. The Chancellor needs to find more money for, above all, housing, universal credit and the NHS, including mental health services.

Question Time audience: May doesn't know difference between mental health and learning disability

Each of these is complicated and difficult, and any one of them would be a worthy mission for a government or a prime minister of any party. Yet this Government and this Prime Minister are needlessly distracted by the all-consuming bureaucratic nightmare that is Brexit.

Even if Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, were a titan in his own department, it would be hard for him to deliver the step change that mental healthcare needs within the context of an improving NHS. As it is, he is fighting an adroit battle to try to make it look as if mental health and the NHS generally are not going backwards too fast.

The 12 charities draw attention to the Government’s targets: just 25 per cent of adults with mental health problems to have talking therapies by 2020, and just 35 per cent of children. As they write, “We cannot go on with such unambitious targets, or simply accept a situation where promises of extra funding don’t actually materialise at the front line.”

The problems of mental healthcare provision for children and teenagers are particularly acute, and, as Jay Watts writes today, spending on simple and cheap treatment for more mild mental health conditions – where demand has “increased massively” – is drawing resources away from those with more serious illnesses.

Of course, more money is not the only answer, but without it the kinds of speedy, sympathetic and effective treatment that ought to be the right of all citizens will simply not be possible.

On this, Labour rhetoric is more extravagant than the Conservatives’ but no more satisfactory. The Opposition seems to think that all the nation’s problems can be solved by huge spending commitments funded by a few rich individuals and “the big corporations” – that is, always someone else.

The inescapable truth of politics in general and this month’s Budget in particular is that if people want better public services they have to pay for them. That means higher taxes, graduated according to ability to pay, and with no pretence that this can be done without everyone bearing their fair share.

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