While policy makers have typically only paid attention to the massive cost of mental ill health, it’s now making its belated rise to the top of the political agenda
‘The mental health of the UK workforce has rarely taken this front and centre role’
For too long the share of NHS funding going to mental health has not been proportionate to its share of the national disease burden. But, along with Mr Clegg’s comments, there are some encouraging signs that the health establishment is getting more interested, even if more equitable funding remains a distant dream.
Perhaps she would not describe herself as a Fairy Godmother, but it is significant that England’s chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davies’ devoted her recent annual advocacy report to public mental health – not a traditional topic for government doctors.
Dame Sally’s report Public Mental Health Priorities: Investing in the Evidence is clear, cogent and urgent – perhaps the most important summary of mental health published in England for several years.
With a general election just seven months away and with the Liberal Democrats, to coin Clegg’s phrase, putting it “slap bang” on the agenda, it’s likely that a lot of the recommendations in her report will be at the top of the health debate for the next few months.
Of the report’s 14 recommendations, perhaps the most noticeable is Dame Sally’s suggestion that the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence should look at the costs and benefits of a fast treatment pathway for people with mental illness in work.
Changing political attitudes
The mental health of the UK workforce has rarely taken this front and centre role, as policy makers typically pay most attention to the massive cost of mental ill health, estimated to be around £70bn to £100bn a year in the UK.
‘Digital services offer a compelling lifeline for those struggling with anxiety and depression at work’
But it’s not just about economics; mental health professionals are increasingly emphasising the benefits of employment for self-worth and social support. Sixty to 70 per cent of people with anxiety or depression are in paid work, and supporting them in the workplace can have huge benefits; once someone is off work sick for six months, there’s only a one-in-five chance of them returning to work in the following five years.
The Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme of NHS talking therapies supports around 600,000 people a year, most of them working age. It’s an impressive achievement, but the need for support far outstrips supply – and there are challenging issues of long waiting times and restricted treatment types.
In the workplace itself, there’s little evidence that whole-workplace wellbeing initiatives – which focus on positive wellbeing rather than on mental ill health– have a significant effect on reducing the number of people who develop mental health issues while in work.
This suggests it makes more sense to focus on supporting people as soon as they experience poor mental health.
Nick Clegg was right to identify waiting times as a lightning rod for the disparity in the treatment of mental health, but it is by no means the be-all and end-all. As part of the solution, low cost, stigma-free and highly accessible digital services offer a compelling lifeline for those struggling with anxiety and depression at work.
While, as Cinderella showed, one size does not fit all, digital services enhance the chance for a mentally “happier ever after”.
Ileana Welte is chief marketing officer at Big White Wall