Lack of action over mental health issues speaks louder than words

When it comes to mental health, snooker legend Ronnie O’Sullivan knows a thing or two about the subject and how attitudes towards the topic have changed.

During the newly released documentary, The Edge of Everything, which chronicles the seven-time world champion’s life and career, O’Sullivan remarked: “Mental health. I’ve been saying that for 20-odd years. Now, all of a sudden, it’s cool. I was 20 years ahead of the game.”

A flippant comment by the 48-year-old perhaps, but, in his own unique way, the man nicknamed ‘The Rocket’ acknowledges the conversation surrounding mental health is louder and more public than ever before.

Increased conversation on mental health

A quick search for the phrase ‘mental health’ on the Hansard website illustrates that very point, as references have more than tripled since 2010.

Last year, there were 2128 references made by MPs and Lords during parliamentary debates, compared to 694 in 2010, after hitting a high of 2735 in 2021.

David Smithson, director of communications & external affairs at Anxiety UK, agrees with O’Sullivan’s point.

He said: “Broadly speaking, mental health has had a higher profile. I think it’s been something that policy makers have been mindful of and understand the importance of.”

However, despite the upturn in rhetoric, the question remains: has there been enough action to tackle mental health related issues in the UK?

According to Smithson and Jeremy Bernhaut, head of policy and influencing at charity Rethink Mental Illness, the answer is currently no.

Not enough being done say experts

Bernhaut said: “There’s definitely not been anywhere near enough action because we’ve also seen a huge growth in need and pressure on services has gone up.

“Regardless of the number of times mental health has been talked about in Parliament, we definitely haven’t seen the level of action that’s needed to address the level of need that’s out there.”

Since 2016/17, there has been a 23.4% increase in the number of people in contact with secondary mental health services from approximately 2.6 million to more than 3.25 million.

Smithson added: “In an ideal world, Anxiety UK would not be needed because everyone would be able to get the help and support they need from statutory services, but unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world.

“We have seen budgets go up, but I do not think we have seen them go up sufficiently to cater for the demand.”

Despite spending on mental health services increasing by 37.7% overall between 2016/17 to 2022/23, funding has not been able to keep pace with the sharp increase in people using mental health services between 2020/21 to 2021/22.

In that time, usage went up 16% compared to funding which only increased by 7%.

Policy and administrative change needed

However, for Bernhaut, action from policy and administrative standpoints are the main unaddressed areas regarding mental health and cited the government’s decision to leave out reforms to the Mental Health Act from the King’s Speech as an illustration of this.

He said: “It is absolutely appalling that the current government are not pressing ahead with those reforms because the process that has led on to identify those reforms were needed is really robust.

“It’s hugely frustrating and the human cost of that is massive because it literally means we’re delaying opportunities for people to be treated much better than they currently are.”

The reforms in question focused on reducing the amount of people going into hospital and allowing for greater levels of patient consent regarding treatment through advanced choice documents – a vehicle for patients to articulate how they wish to be treated whilst they still have the capacity to do so.

Mind chief executive Dr Sarah Hughes said of the decision: “This is further evidence of how little regard the current UK government has for mental health.

“More than 50,000 people were held under the Mental Health Act last year, so it is incomprehensible that legislation which would help people at their most unwell has been de-prioritised.”

Bernhaut also explained that a black person is approximately four times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act than a white person in the UK and that legislative reforms could tackle this particular issue.

NHS figures for 2021/22 show the crude number of detentions per 100,000 population for people with a white ethnicity is 73.6, whilst the corresponding figure for those with a black or black British ethnicity sits at 307.3, a figure 4.17 times higher.

He said: “At the moment, the Act has this curious effect on young black men, but also racial communities in particular who are subjected to the Act more than anybody else disproportionately and there is no biological reason for that, it is purely a social reason, and it can be addressed.”

Bernhaut also wishes to see the implementation of a cross-government approach to tackling issues regarding mental health.

He said: “There are so many different opportunities for people to engage with the arms of the state that can help them with their mental health that the government is really missing a trick by not thinking about how every single government policy and every single arm of the state can either negatively impact on mental health or positively impact on mental health.

“Whoever forms the next government, they really need to get a grip on the waiting lists, they really need to implement a Mental Health Act as soon as possible, they need to introduce a long term cross-government plan for mental health.”

Mental health issues set for be addressed

In response, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We’re going further and faster to transform our country’s mental health services, with up to an additional £2.3 billion being invested annually by 2024 to expand services, so an extra two million people can get the support they need.

“We are also continuing to pilot models of Culturally Appropriate Advocacy, providing tailored support to hundreds of people from ethnic minorities to better understand their rights when they are detained under the Mental Health Act.

“It remains our intention to bring forward a Mental Health Bill when Parliamentary time allows.”

Featured image credit: JoanDragonfly via Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0 licence

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