The government’s hypocrisy concerning the UK’s mental health crisis hit a new low on Wednesday with the appointment of a minister for suicide prevention. Theresa May announced that Jackie Doyle-Price would take on the role as she marked World Mental Health Day, and the fact that there is a case to be made for creating the position is incredibly sad.
More than 5,800 deaths by suicide were recorded in the UK last year, and it is the leading cause of death among young people aged 20 to 34 years, according to the Mental Health Foundation. Men are three times as likely to take their own lives than women.
These are horrifying statistics, and any effort aimed at preventing suicide should be applauded. However, when viewed in the wider context of the government’s policies over recent years, this latest action taken by the prime minister looks a lot less wholesome.
The Conservatives have marked their current long run in government with a series of cuts to public funding, and the bite of austerity has been felt in most British households, although to different degrees. Services have been depleted, disappearing entirely in some areas, and many people have had vital support pulled out from under them, with little to no warning.
Earlier this year, research revealed that mental health trusts had been left with less funding in real terms than they had in 2012 due to cuts.
Less stark, but just as important in explaining the increased mental health problems that Britain is dealing with, are the cuts to welfare such as housing benefits and disability living allowance, which have plunged thousands of Britons into crisis and despair. This is not an exaggeration - research has shown that the government’s cuts to local council budgets have increased levels of deprivation in England’s poorest areas.
If someone is already struggling financially, trying to keep a roof over their head, feeding their children while going hungry themselves, having trouble finding paid work, any reduction in funds, no matter how small, will be deeply felt.
If that person was already struggling with mental health issues, the consequences can be catastrophic.
And the government knows this. The links between welfare cuts and mental health problems have long been reported - for example, in 2017, research by the Independent revealed that attempted suicides among out-of-work disability benefit claimants had more than doubled since the introduction of fit-to-work assessments in 2008.
The government, however, has chosen to do nothing about this tragic mess it has created, and in fact, matters only seem to be getting worse. Earlier this year, the number of homeless people sleeping rough on the streets of England hit a record high, and just this week it emerged that more than one homeless person died every day in the UK over the last 12 months. Experts blamed a mixture of welfare cuts, a lack of social housing and high rents - the government has not helped the people most impacted by its cuts.
At the same time, rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers have increased by 70 per cent in the last 25 years. Almost 19,000 teenagers were admitted to hospital for self-harm in 2015/16, a 68 per cent rise over the preceding decade.
So there is no reason to believe that the problem will be alleviated in the near future, and every reason to fear it will deteriorate further.
What the government could do to really help ease the pressure on people suffering from mental illness is alleviate pressure on mental health services by increasing funding, and lifting the burden on a huge portion of society by using the next Budget to make a real effort at ending austerity for the people most in need of extra help.
Unfortunately, based on past performance, it’s more likely that the PM’s paper-over-the-cracks appointment of a new minister might be the only action we see.
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