Mental health: Empty rhetoric or real action?

Written by: Dr Bernard Trafford | Published:
Dr Bernard Trafford, head, Royal Grammar School, Newcastle

The prime minister’s focus on mental health can only be welcomed, says Dr Bernard Trafford. But will the government back up the rhetoric with proper funding?

Prime minister Theresa May is on a mission to tackle “some of the burning injustices that undermine the solidarity of our society”. Earlier this month, she made a major speech to the Charity Commission: but her target audience was the whole nation.

There was a big statement on mental health. Her plan is to seize a “historic opportunity to right a wrong, and give people ... the attention and treatment they deserve”. She pledged to remove the stigma of mental illness and devote resource and treatment equal to that given to other health problems.

Secondary school staff will be offered Mental Health First Aid training. There will be new trials (unspecified, but led by the Care Quality Commission) to strengthen links between schools and local NHS mental health staff. Mental health campaigner Lord Stephenson and Paul Farmer, chief executive of the charity Mind, will carry out a review on improving support in the workplace. There will be an extra
£15 million towards a focus on community care, with less emphasis on patients visiting GPs and A&E and expanded online services to allow symptom checks before patients seek a face-to-face appointment.

Mr Farmer told the BBC that it was “important to see the prime minister talking about mental health” but warned: The proof would be in the difference it made to the day-to-day experience of people experiencing mental health problems.

Naturally we must welcome the fact that the PM has raised the issue: but it’s not time yet to pop the champagne corks. Her predecessor, who always struck me as a compassionate man, similarly professed a determination to raise the profile of, and increase support for, mental illness. Nothing materialised.

This time round, there’s no new Treasury money for any of these plans and, according to the BBC: “NHS providers ... predict that the share of local NHS budgets devoted to mental health will fall next year.”

I want to believe this is a real step forward, that it will make a difference. I accept the PM is sincere in her desire to stop mental illness being a hidden, stigmatised problem that is not addressed or treated: but, as with all political speeches, the rhetoric is strong while the detail is thin.
Training validated by Mental Health First Aid England is excellent (my school has made great use of it), and could provide a powerful resource in schools.

But why only secondary schools? To see mental illness as purely a teenage/adolescent thing is a trap into which too many of us fall. Primary heads in the tough parts of the North East insist their children are facing as many mental health issues as those in secondary, stemming from intractable social issues: poverty, unemployment, poor parenting, attachment disorders. Whatever government aims to do about tackling those roots of injustice and inequity, it must recognise that young children too suffer mental illness.

Ms May’s vow to use the state as a “force for good”, within her vision of a “shared society”, is strong stuff: but if she’s sincere, as Alistair Campbell tweeted, why have mental health services gone backwards in the last six months?

More online diagnosis and better trained teachers in schools will make some difference: but what is needed above all is the funding necessary to provide services run by properly qualified experts. There is no mention of that. Indeed, when I read that the review will be into “workplace practice”, I start to fear an onslaught of government legislation to require schools – indeed, all employers – to prove they have wellbeing policies and procedures in place: another government-required paper-chase. Ms May should remember this above all: all the policies and websites in the world cannot replace the mental health professionals who are so desperately needed. Satisfying that need will require hard cash, not mere promises.

  • Dr Bernard Trafford is head of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School and a former chairman of HMC. His views are personal. Follow him @bernardtrafford


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up SecEd Bulletin