UK Politics

Mental illness 'biggest UK health challenge' - Miliband

  • 29 October 2012
  • From the section UK Politics
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The problem of mental illness in the UK is the "biggest unaddressed health challenge of our age", Labour leader Ed Miliband has said.

It "blights the lives of millions", costing UK business £26bn and the NHS an extra £10bn a year, he said.

Mr Miliband wants to give patients the same legal right to mental health therapies as physical healthcare.

He criticised some celebrities for reinforcing the taboo around mental health and called for a culture change.

Mr Miliband was giving his first major speech since the Labour Party conference where he adopted the "one nation" slogan created by 19th Century Tory Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.

He said that just as Disraeli addressed the national challenge of sanitation in the 19th Century, and the foundation of the NHS followed in the 20th Century, the mental health challenge facing the UK must be addressed this century.

"One in four of us will have a mental illness at some point in our lifetime," Mr Miliband said.

"There are so many people in Britain today who could be treated but who are intimidated from seeking help. And so many people who need support but... believe that no-one will care.

"For far too long our leading politicians have been far too silent about mental health, part of a taboo running across our society which infects both our culture and our politics.

"A change of culture has happened with illnesses that have previously been taboo: from cancer to Aids to other sexually transmitted diseases.

"But it hasn't yet happened as much as it needs to with mental health."

The Labour leader criticised those in the public eye who "abuse the privilege of their celebrity to insult, demean and belittle others".

Sickness absence

This includes Janet Street-Porter and Jeremy Clarkson, whose "lazy caricatures" reinforce the taboo on the issue, he said.

"Just as we joined the fight against racism, against sexism and against homophobia, so we should join the fight against this form of intolerance."

He announced proposals to improve mental health provision in the NHS, including:

  • Rewriting the NHS constitution to enshrine patients' legal right to therapies for mental illness
  • Mental health training for all staff
  • Better integration of physical and mental healthcare, and social care

"Mental ill-health is a cradle to grave problem with nothing like a cradle to grave service," he said, with some funds earmarked for mental health services not being used for the right purpose.

Neglecting the problem ends up costing the NHS more, Mr Miliband argued, "in the strains and demands placed on those who carry the burden of care and in the trouble stored up over the years as minor problems become major ones".

Meanwhile, the annual costs to UK business are £15bn in reduced productivity, £8.5bn in sickness absence, and £2.5bn to replace staff who can no longer work.

The Labour leader is setting up a taskforce - led by the chairman of Barts Health NHS Trust, Stephen O'Brien - to draw up a strategic plan for mental health in society.

Mr Miliband said: "Too often governments have been stuck in a mindset that thought that physical health should always take priority - or that the answer to our health crises started and stopped with new government programmes.

"But good mental health doesn't start in hospital or the treatment room, it starts in our workplaces, our schools and our communities.

"So the task falls as much to organisations like the CBI as it does to the Royal College of Psychiatrists. In fact, everybody has a part to play. Only a nation acting together can overcome the challenge we face."

Mental health charities welcomed Mr Miliband's speech and his commitment to giving patients a legal right to therapies for mental illness.

Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, said: "Mental health is everyone's business. We are now seeing politicians finally realise that it isn't just the responsibility of health services to support people with mental health problems and that they have their own role to play in changing attitudes."

Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of the mental health charity SANE, said: "It is extraordinary that despite the scale of the challenge and the fact that mental illness costs the NHS and employers more than any physical condition, people do not have a legal right to therapies for mental health problems."

Rethink Mental Illness praised Mr Miliband for making mental health a priority, particularly improving the training of NHS staff: "As things stand, you can become a doctor having only studied mental health for a few days.

"As a result many health professionals do not have a good enough understanding of mental illness."

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