Home > Democratic Accountability, Law, Media, Mental Health, Stigma > Andy Burnham, Morning Star: Mental health: Breaking the taboo

Andy Burnham, Morning Star: Mental health: Breaking the taboo

Still no mention of the devastating effects the WCA has on health generally and health specifically.   I still don’t have a response from him from an email about the WCA etc sent about 5 weeks ago, but something like progress….  Small steps.



Monday 10 September 2012:by Andy Burnham, shadow secretary of state for health

TUC 2012: Later this week the House of Commons will debate a new law to remove the last remaining form of discrimination still enshrined in law.

At present, our law reinforces the outdated prejudice that recovery from mental ill health is not possible. That is wrong and we urgently need to put it right.

The Mental Health Discrimination Bill coming before MPs on Friday will repeal archaic and discriminatory laws.

It will send an important message to all employers that unfair discrimination against people with mental ill health has no place in modern Britain.

More broadly, if people with experience of mental ill health can play a full part in public life, our Parliament, companies and courts will all be richer and fairer places for it and, in time, society’s wider understanding of mental health will be greatly enhanced.

Twenty-first century living demands levels of emotional and mental resilience that our parents and grandparents never needed.

Yet our national stiff-upper-lip tendency not to talk openly about mental health might help to explain why our public services are designed for the 20th century rather than the 21st.

When the NHS was set up, life was different. People faced physical risks – disease or accidents at work – but lived in more close-knit communities.

Working underground exposed people to coal dust, explosions and accidents, and people had no choice but to lock arms, look out for each other and face the dangers together. That is how it was – and that spirit of solidarity was carried over into the streets above.

But life in the 21st century is a reverse of the 20th – physically safer but emotionally harder.

We are living longer, more stressful and isolated lives and coping with constant change. Yet the NHS does not reflect that new reality.

Essentially it remains a postwar production-line model focused on episodic physical care – the stroke, the hip replacement, the cataract – rather than the whole person. That is the issue to confront.

How can a subject that is so central to the big public policy challenges we face as a country still exist on the fringes, getting so little air time and attention?

We are reluctant to talk about mental health as much as we should. But we are all, as a country, beginning to wake up from our complacency.

Labour sees the mental health challenge as central to health policy.

I shared the complacency until several years ago when I spent a day work-shadowing an outreach team.

I will never forget what I was told about the early 1990s, when the mines closed and GP referrals for support were piling up on clinic desks.

There was simply no support to offer people and that lay behind the social collapse in those mining communities, they said.

People facing difficult times were given no help.

Later it was Lord Bradley’s report into mental health problems and learning that further challenged my thinking.

I will never forget reading that approximately 70 per cent of young people in the criminal justice system have an undiagnosed or untreated mental health problem.

If that is not enough to shock us into action, frankly nothing will.

The demands of the modern and ageing society require a change in how we provide health and social care.

We need a whole-person approach that combines not only the physical but the mental and social, if we are to give people the quality of life that we desire for our own families. Mental health must move from the margins to the centre of the NHS.

Mental health services are still the poor relation in the NHS. How can it be that an issue that causes so much suffering and costs our society so much still accounts for only a fraction of the NHS budget?

We also have to consider the separateness of mental health within the NHS.

This has deep social roots – the asylum, the separate place where people with mental health problems were treated, the accompanying stigma and suspicion about what went on behind those four walls.

Essentially, we still have the same system in the NHS, with separate organisations providing services on separate premises.

That maintains the sense of a divide between the two systems and raises a huge health inequalities issue.

On average people with severe mental health problems die 20 years earlier than those without. It is partly explained by the separateness within our system.

If someone is labelled a mental health patient, they are treated in the mental health system, and consequently their physical health needs are neglected.

We need to put both services within the same hospital as part of the culture change needed in the NHS.

The other part of that change is that doctors dealing with mental health should not just reach for medication, rather than social or psychological interventions.

In 2009 the NHS issued nearly 40 million prescriptions for anti-depressants – almost twice as many as 10 years earlier, with a noticeably sharp increase during the financial crisis.

Psychological therapies may give GPs an alternative to medication but as many as a third of doctors are unaware of services for patients beyond medication.

This tells us that we still have quite a long way to go.

Currently a person who has had a serious breakdown and has been sectioned is barred from being an MP, a juror or a company director.

It sends out a message that recovery is not possible, a message that we might have put out about cancer in the ’50s or ’60s – “Once you have had it, it is a black mark. That’s it, you’re finished.” We urgently need to change that.

On Friday Parliament must take the lead. We must change the law to reflect the potential for recovery, challenge attitudes and bring the change in services we need.

The Mental Health (Discrimination) Bill is a private member’s Bill presented by Gavin Barwell, Conservative MP for Croydon Central. The Bill has cross-party support and is also supported by Mind, Rethink Mental Illness and the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

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