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Expert Comment: A new direction for Labour’s mental health policy?

parliament 150 x150 Friday 18 September 2015

Dr Rich Moth, Lecturer in Social Work, examines the potential changes a new Minister for Mental Health could make to current government policy. 

Jeremy Corbyn’s resounding victory in the Labour Party leadership contest, having run on an anti-austerity, anti-war and pro-refugee platform, has sent shockwaves through the political establishment. His campaign saw a significant grassroots mobilisation with tens of thousands of supporters attending rallies and meetings across the country.

Mental health has been a prominent focus throughout Corbyn’s campaign. While this reflects an increasing cross-party profile for the issue at the May 2015 general election, Corbyn’s intervention is particularly welcome as he adopts a more critical and wide-ranging stance than is usual within mainstream policy debates. His position was set out in a leadership election manifesto published in August. This document was highly critical of Government rhetoric that claimed ongoing improvements in provision and instead identified a crisis in mental health services.

Responsibility for this state of affairs is placed firmly with Coalition government cuts. The publication cites recent investigations into mental health funding that reveal an 8% real terms reduction in budgets for NHS Mental Health Trusts over the 2010-15 period at a time when need, indicated by the number of referrals to services, has been rising. These funding constraints are set to continue under the new Conservative administration.

While Corbyn’s manifesto recognised the importance of properly funded service provision, and proposed increased spending, it also adopted a holistic stance acknowledging the significance of wider social, political and economic determinants of mental health and wellbeing. The document identified the role of austerity, low pay, job insecurity and welfare reform in compounding growing levels of inequality that, as Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level and associated research programmes have demonstrated, significantly impact on levels of mental distress in society.

Meanwhile the document is critical of the divisive ‘scrounger’ rhetoric and scapegoating of welfare recipients encountered in significant sections of media and political spheres that further excludes and stigmatises those with mental health needs, exacerbating psychological distress sometimes with tragic consequences. The need to address both the causes and mental health impacts of gender, racial and other forms of discrimination is also recognised, while previously neglected areas such as children and young people’s mental health are prominent.

Since winning the leadership contest, Corbyn’s commitment to prioritising mental health shows no signs of diminishing. On his first full day in his new role he decided to forego an appearance on the BBC TV’s Andrew Marr Show to attend a NHS Mental Health Trust fundraiser in his Islington constituency. Soon after, he announced the creation of a new ‘Minister for Mental Health’ a senior post at Shadow Cabinet level that has, as yet, no equivalent in government.

MP for Liverpool Wavertree Luciana Berger has been appointed to this role. The momentum continued during his debut as Labour leader at Prime Minister’s Questions. Corbyn had taken the novel step of ‘crowd-sourcing’ questions from the public. He reported that of 40 thousand proposed questions landing in his inbox one thousand concerned mental health, indicating a considerable groundswell of public interest and concern around this topic. As a result he took the unprecedented step of addressing not one but two questions on the mental health crisis to David Cameron.

Nonetheless Corbyn faces considerable challenges in translating his proposals into Labour party policy. He stood on a platform that promised a break with a political consensus of austerity and market-driven policy prescriptions. However most Labour MPs (if not, it is now clear, party members and supporters) continue to identify with significant elements of this neoliberal agenda. Parliamentary opposition to Corbyn’s leadership could prove a significant obstacle to this new direction for Labour’s economic and social (including mental health) policy unless, as Corbyn has acknowledged, his support becomes “more of a social movement”.

In fact the last two to three years has already seen the emergence of a small but significant number of mental health campaigns and movements in different parts of the UK challenging the impact of austerity and privatisation on services. Many are service user-led but also involve mental health workers, professionals and trade unionists. These, I would argue, foreshadow the kind of broad political and campaigning alliances that will be required if the aspirations of Corbyn’s manifesto for extended and improved service provision and the promotion of improved mental health and wellbeing through a more inclusive, caring and equal society are to be realised.

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