What the next UK Government can do for mental health

A picture of Sue Leary, director of Mind Cymru, the Mental Health Charity in Wales.

Sue O’Leary argues the upcoming General Election represents an opportunity for a different approach to mental health.

While the mental health system and many of the factors that protect our emotional and mental well-being are devolved to Welsh government, there is still action the UK government can take to improve the support available and the mental health of our communities in Wales. 

We’ve been concerned about the lack of prominence mental health has had in the election campaign so far, considering the key decisions the next UK government could take to improve the lives of so many. 

This is why at Mind Cymru we have launched our priorities for the incoming UK Government. 

These are priorities based on the stories and insight we have gathered from people with lived experience over many years across Wales and England. 

The scale of the problem

The last few years have been a challenge for many of us. The pandemic led to a wide range of emotions, some of which faded as restrictions were lifted and others which have been harder to overcome. 

This was closely followed by a cost-of-living crisis which placed significant financial strains on individuals, families, and whole communities up and down Wales. When we recently asked the public what they thought was driving the rising number of people with mental health problems, they overwhelmingly said the cost-of-living crisis.

We have seen poverty growing and we know those of us with mental health problems are more likely to struggle financially, and that those struggling financially are more likely to experience poor mental health. 

The resulting increase in people seeking help for their mental health is therefore not a surprise.

With frontline support in the voluntary sector and the NHS coming under increasing pressure, governments must tackle the mental health crisis through everything available to them. From healthcare to benefits, this is an issue intrinsically linked to the way we live our lives.

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We know this is a lot to take in but I do believe that together we can campaign for and secure changes that will make a significant difference to so many of us. 

We need swift action from UK Government 

So, what do we feel these changes should be and why?

Any incoming UK government needs to address three issues to contribute to improving the mental health of the population in Wales:

  • Reform the outdated Mental Health Act  
  • Make benefits assessments work for people with mental health problems
  • Support people with mental health problems to thrive at work

Reforming the Mental Health Act

Whilst mental health is devolved, the Mental Health Act remains a piece of England and Wales legislation. We welcome the recent Bill brought forward by James Evans MS to introduce some of the reforms outlined in the review of the Act into Welsh law, but more could be achieved. 

There has been a broad recognition and commitment to the need to reform. It is long overdue – the process for updating this legislation began six years ago. 

Chief among the problems with the Act right now are that people don’t have enough say in their treatment. There are shocking disparities in the way the legislation is applied – if you’re Black, you’re three times more likely to be detained under the Act and eight times more likely to be subject to community treatment orders.

A reformed Mental Health Act will strengthen people’s rights, complement legislation already in place in Wales and give them more choice and control when they’re in a mental health hospital, this will help to challenge some of the deep inequalities that currently exist.

Transforming benefits assessments 

The current benefits system doesn’t give those of us with mental health problems the financial support we need. Inaccurate health assessments are leaving many people to go through lengthy, stressful processes to fight for benefits to which they are eligible, while they are unwell. 

The Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessment and Work Capability Assessment (WCA) used by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) are in desperate need of reform. There is a lack of expertise and understanding of mental health problems within the benefits system, which means assessments ultimately cause harm to many people’s financial situation and mental health. 

We would want to see people with experience of the benefits system at the heart of planning how to improve it.

Support people with mental health problems to thrive at work

Employers need to step up to the challenge of improving workplace wellbeing for all, and supporting people with mental health problems. But with 68% of people thinking the government should enforce standards for how employers deal with mental health at work, we also need to see action.

By implementing the Thriving at Work recommendations in full, and promoting the Mental Health at Work Commitment, the government can offer a framework for business to create workplaces that promote good mental health. 

A future UK government should also clarify and extend the protections available to workers under the Equality Act 2010 so that people with mental health problems get the same rights as other disabled people.

And with workers on Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) getting as little as £1.10 an hour in the first week and less than £3 an hour after, there is a desperate need for modernisation. People on low incomes or the self-employed aren’t eligible for Statutory Sick Pay and while many people returning to work after an absence due to mental health find it easier to manage the transition through a phased return, SSP in its current form isn’t flexible enough to accommodate this.

No mind left behind

We know mental health affects many different aspects of our lives, from our need for treatment to our work and finances. Government departments, civil society and those with lived experience of mental illness all need to be involved in developing and delivering a new mission for mental health. This is what we need to see the next UK government commit to on Day 1. 

Through our national services and network of local Minds in Wales, we provide support to around 38,000 people every year with their mental health problems. As such, we have unprecedented insight and knowledge into the issues people face and are committed to being part of the solution. 

That insight has shaped our first steps for the next government, and we stand ready to campaign and collaborate to deliver them. 

I truly believe that together, we can make sure there’s no mind left behind. 

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer. If you want to support our work tackling Wales’ key challenges, consider becoming a member.

Sue O'Leary is the director of Mind Cymru.

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