Marcus Papadopoulos
Chief Executive of Leonard Cheshire

ACHIEVING PARITY OF ESTEEM BETWEEN MENTAL AND PHYSICAL HEALTH REQUIRES A SHIFT OF MIND

Helen Whately, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mental Health and Conservative MP for Faversham and Mid Kent, talks with Marcus Papadopoulos about addressing mental ill health

According to the NHS, one in four adults and one in ten children in the United Kingdom experience mental health problems. Even more disconcerting is that some mental health therapists, based on the volume of patients whom they see on a weekly basis, believe that the figure for adults suffering from mental illnesses is probably one in three. But either way, what is clear is that mental ill health is severe and widespread in Britain, and destroys lives, both literally and metaphorically speaking.
In recent years, consecutive governments in the UK have made tackling mental illnesses one of their key priorities, reflecting how British society has become increasingly aware of mental health and how debilitating mental illnesses are. Putting mental health on an equal footing with physical health is now the ambition of Whitehall and Westminster.
However, there are major impediments to achieving that parity of esteem. The stigma associated with mental health problems persists and is ingrained in many institutions and workplaces.Then there is the required shift in mind amongst employers, for instance, which will be a Herculean task. Furthermore, dispensing with the macho culture, for example in secondary schools for boys, is essential but will be extremely difficult to achieve.
To discuss the situation concerning mental ill health in the UK is Helen Whately, Conservative MP for Faversham and Mid Kent and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mental Health. For some 10 years now, Helen has been campaigning to highlight the prevalence of mental health problems and is working tirelessly to tackle them.
In this exclusive interview, Helen discusses how she became involved in the campaign to counter mental ill health, the effects of mental health problems on society, the Government’s pledge to achieve parity of esteem between mental and physical health, and what her APPG will be focussing on in this parliament.

ACHIEVING PARITY OF ESTEEM BETWEEN MENTAL AND PHYSICAL HEALTH REQUIRES A SHIFT OF MIND

Q. What made you want to become the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mental Health?
A. I have been campaigning to draw attention to mental ill health for about 10 years now, having first become aware of the effects of poor mental health when a family member of mine had a very bad experience with the NHS. That experience enabled me to understand that people with mental illnesses are at the back of the queue when it comes to treatment on the NHS. And as I became more aware of mental ill health, I realised just how frighteningly common it is. So I began involving myself in mental health campaigning, together with tackling the terribly harmful stigma associated with it. Prior to entering Parliament, I worked in healthcare, specifically helping to design the model for mental healthcare in Accident and Emergency wards, which involved me working with clinicians and hospitals which were at the leading edge in offering mental health services in A&E. After entering Parliament, I looked to the APPG on Mental Health as an extremely effective way of becoming more involved in the campaign to counter mental ill health in our society.

Q. How much of a problem is mental ill health in the UK? And what are the effects of that illness on people’s lives and the economy?
A. Mental ill health is a very major problem in Britain, though, of course, it is a major problem for other countries, too. It is believed that one in four people in the UK will suffer from a mental health illness in their lifetime, while one in ten children will be diagnosed with a mental health problem. And in terms of the economic costs of mental ill health, it is approximated that the UK economy incurs losses of £100 billion per year, when loss of productivity, impact on employers and the costs of NHS treatments are taken into account.
I would also like to take this opportunity to say that one of biggest predictors of children having mental health problems is their parents having poor mental health. There is a knock on effect across families and society of mental ill health. There are also mental ill health inequalities, whereby our deprived communities have the highest number of mental health problems. So whilst mental ill health spans across socio-demographics, it has a greater presence in deprived areas. That is an intolerable reality.

Q. The Government has said that tackling mental ill health is one of its key priorities. In your opinion, has the Government put mental health on an equal footing with physical health?
A. I believe that the Government’s commitment to mental health is true, extensive and deep. The Government is talking regularly with mental health campaigners because, in the words of many who work within mental health organisations, “now is a golden moment to be a mental health campaigner”. The Government has legislated for parity of esteem between mental and physical health, there is extra money going into mental health provision, such as £1.4 billion for children’s mental health over the next five years, there is an extra £11.7 billion of funding for NHS mental health services, and there is the Green Paper for Mental Health and Schools. So we are seeing more money being poured into mental health, the Prime Minister has pledged to tackle mental ill health, more staff are being recruited for the mental health sector, and we are seeing transparency by which it is now possible to know how hospitals are performing in treating patients with mental health problems, which constitutes a material step forward.

The current provision for mental health is a huge improvement over what it was previously but, nonetheless, it is far from sufficient. One of the biggest challenges facing the Government is that as people become more aware of metal ill health, they are more likely to seek help for it hence the demand for mental healthcare will increase very significantly. So, for instance, the introduction of talking therapies have proved to be very effective, resulting in a greater demand for them. Therefore, in order to keep on expanding mental health services, we need more mental healthcare workers, which means more money is required in order to train people, too.

Q. Can parity of esteem between mental and physical health be achieved and, if so, how?
A. Parity of esteem is an important ambition but it will involve a major shift of mind amongst doctors and others working across the NHS and also from employers. So for employers, it is common practice for them to have first aiders but they should also have mental health first aiders. Recently, I was at the Department for Work and Pensions and I saw a list on the wall there of mental health first aiders, which was extremely encouraging to see. So I would like to see employers replicate that. Furthermore, I would like to see more schools have mental health first aiders. I am delighted to learn that a school in my constituency is working with the mental health charity Mind to help children with mental health problems. Problems at home can often trigger mental health problems in children so it is important that teachers are adequately trained and prepared to help pupils who begin to show signs of mental ill health.

Q. Finally, what will the Mental Health APPG be working on in this parliament?
A. We have a programme for the next year which includes a response to the Green Paper on young people’s mental health, organising a roundtable on the Mental Health Act, carrying out research on the link between domestic abuse and mental ill health, a short inquiry on the progress of the Government’s five-year strategy for mental health, and investigating the causes of poor mental health in young people, with the aim of intervening early to prevent young people from developing serious mental health problems later on in their lives.

“Problems at home can often trigger mental health problems in children”