First published by The Independent, 14th September 2015
Soppy liberal that I am, I spent Saturday in a state of euphoric celebration after Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader within the biggest mandate in the history of the party. It’s now Monday, and I’m celebrating again (this time at my desk, very quietly) because one of the first acts performed by Corbyn as leader has been to create the position of Minister for Mental Health.
Luciana Berger is the first person ever to hold this position. There is no counterpart in the Conservative government, and Corbyn’s creation of the role makes a clear statement about how mental health will be treated by the current opposition and the next Labour government.
Berger’s cabinet post means that parties can no longer get away with paying mere lip service to the issue of mental health provision. This year, the Conservatives swept into government promising a further 30bn of cuts across the board and the continuation of the failed project of austerity. By 2017-18 both adult and children’s mental health services will have been slashed by 8 per cent, placing more strain on services that are already ill-equipped to deal with the volume of patients who need help.
Funding distribution is currently in an incredibly unequal state, with mental health receiving just 13 per cent of NHS money despite accounting for 23 per cent of the disease burden. Vulnerable young people experiencing mental health problems have been kept in police cells because there simply aren’t the beds available for them. People are increasingly turning to A&E because they don’t feel they have any other option in terms of seeking mental health provision. Directly after the election, the Mental Health Policy Group estimated that 2 million more adults in the UK will experience mental health issues by 2030.
I voted for Corbyn because he reminded me that the political conversation could be different. His campaign represented a true alternative to austerity. Although Ed Miliband called mental health the “biggest unaddressed health challenge of our age”, his opposition still touted a kind of austerity-lite as their answer. Austerity can never be justified if we care at all about those who suffer from mental health problems. Iain Duncan Smith’s beloved practice of sanctioning – which has affected around 2 million people in the last two years – disproportionately affects those with conditions that are difficult to assess, like mental illness.
With one in four people in the UK experiencing a mental health condition every year, and the current crisis occurring in the mental wellbeing of our young women, mental health is something that we should all be concerned about – whether we like it or not. Even from the most selfish, capitalist perspective, adequate provision for mental health is hugely important because it would help to reduce the £26bn lost to the UK economy every year through work-related mental health problems.
Corbyn’s creation of the Minister for Mental Health represents the drawing of a line in the sand. The Labour party will now stand with those who are sick and suffering, committed with action rather than platitudes. Corbyn’s clear commitment to mental health provision throws light on the inhumanity in the policies of Jeremy Hunt and Iain Duncan Smith. It also gives me, as someone who has struggled with my mental health since my early teens, been hospitalised four times and who still is fighting for a basic review of my medication, a glimmer of hope.
Luciana Berger might have her work cut out in this new ministerial role, but her presence as Minister for Mental Health is cause for celebration in itself.