What the election means for you

When you’re busy getting on with life, it can seem that the world of politics is just so much talk. Roya Ireland explores what this year’s general election means for any of us interested in mental health.

There will be a general election in May or June this year. General elections are important because they usually only happen once every four or five years and they are the only time that all of us get the chance to have our say in changing the UK government at Westminster.

Wherever you’re based in the UK, the Westminster government is responsible for raising taxes and, if you live in England, it’s also primarily responsible for controlling spending on public services.

Public spending (spending by the government) has a major impact on the lives of people with mental health difficulties – particularly in terms of spending on the NHS and the benefits system. Mind estimates that each year 230 out of 1,000 people in the UK will visit a GP because they are experiencing a mental health problem, while people with mental health difficulties make up around 40% of the 2.5 million claimants of Incapacity Benefit.

Use your vote

Whichever political party or parties form the next government, they will make decisions that will affect any health care you receive, how any support you receive works and potentially, how mental health difficulty is regarded.

As citizens we have the power to elect one set of politicians over another, one government or another. We have the power to make mental health a real issue both in the cmpaign and for whoever forms the next government.

The first step in doing this is to make sure that you take advantage of your vote. Make sure that you are registered to vote (see box below).   Don’t fall for the line that it doesn’t matter if you vote or not. It does. Politicians always pay attention to people who might vote for them. The more they want your vote, the more they will listen to your concerns and ideas. Mental health is an everyday issue.

Voting is important but whether or not the candidate and party that you support wins at the general election, you can still use the fact that a general election is taking place as a reason to contact politicians and encourage them to take mental health issues seriously.

Politicians can be supporters too

Leading politicians often have positive points to make about mental health. For example, speaking in support of the launch of the Time to Change campaign in 2009, the Conservative leader, David Cameron said: “We have to get to the point where everyone has the same attitude towards mental health problems as they do to physical health problems.”

Election time is one of the best times to make sure that politicians follow up their warm words with positive action. Contact your MP now (see box next page) and ask what she or he is doing to make life better for people with mental health difficulties and tell them that you would like to support policies that help people with mental health difficulties to get on with life and not face discrimination and stigma. Contact the other candidates to ask them what they will do.

The big issues at the election

Following increased government spending to deal with the difficult economic situation, the UK government is now heavily in debt and all major parties are now pledging to cut overall spending on public services after the general election.

These parties are also pledging to continue to increase spending on the NHS but given the wide range of demands on NHS resources, it is hard to predict the extent to which the next government will prioritise mental health services.

Phil Hope, the Labour government minister responsible for mental health services, says he is determined to tackle mental health difficulties in people of all ages, and help make support accessible for everyone by personalising services and making them more responsive to patient’s needs.

The Labour government’s policies over the last twelve years have seen a record amount of spending on mental health. Labour claim that as a result of this investment there are now 64% more consultant psychiatrists, 71% more clinical psychologists and 21% more mental health nurses delivering services for people with mental health difficulties. They also set up 740 assertive outreach, home treatment, early intervention and crisis teams to provide care in the community.

In December 2009, the government launched New Horizons – a ten-year strategy to improve services and help prevent people developing mental illness. New Horizons aims to support the local development of higher quality, more personalised services and improve outreach to help excluded groups access support.

The approach to mental health services described by New Horizons is broadly supported by both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. A specific point of agreement between Labour and the Conservatives is that the promotion of talking therapies – including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) – is generally a good idea. In 2009, Labour launched Improving Access to Psychological Therapies

(IAPT), a programme to establish a range of therapies including CBT, intended to reduce waiting lists and increase recovery rates. Anne Milton, the Conservative shadow health minister says that talking therapies would continue to be promoted under a Conservative government as they are proven to improve outcomes for many people experiencing mental health difficulty.

There is a difference

The major parties don’t agree about everything. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats believe that doctors and nurses are forced to spend too much time trying to meet government targets rather than caring for patients. Both major opposition parties criticise Labour for wasting money on NHS bureaucracy that they say would be better spent on services.

Earlier this year, Liberal Democrat shadow health secretary, Norman Lamb, criticised the government’s record on mental health saying: “Labour has failed to make proper improvements to our mental health services after 13 years in government. It is vital that services focus on identifying people with mental health problems as early as possible. Priority also needs to be given to ensuring that patients are seen as quickly as possible after they are referred to mental health services.”

The Conservatives are also keen to emphasise the need to prevent illness. Their manifesto states that they “aim to treat the causes of our national problems as well as their symptoms.” This applies to government debt as well as the problems of society, and healthcare issues where prevention is better than cure.

According to Anne Milton, “prevention of poor mental health, through our focus on ring-fenced public health money will be extremely important if we are going to tackle mental health problems pro-actively rather than reactively.” To commission successful treatments, Milton believes clinicians need more information about what works and what does not for different kinds of mental health difficulties.

The Conservatives aim to deliver public health policies that will encourage people to take responsibility for their own well being, which they believe will save billions of pounds of NHS spending in the long-term.

Keep up the dialogue

All three major parties support the government’s policy of introducing personal health budgets for people with mental health difficulties (and other users of mental health services). The parties all believe that personal budgets are a good way of enabling people to get the treatment they need by providing more choice.

The Liberal Democrats support the development of a network of ‘patient advocates’ to help patients make the best use of services.

There are not many clear political dividing lines between the major parties in terms of their policies towards mental health. This may result from the fact that historically people with mental health difficulties have been less visible in the political process. This election may mark the first steps towards mental health being as strong a topic in party political debate as any other.

Many party spokespeople and backbench MPs have a strong commitment to finding the right policies to help people with mental health difficulties. It is important that people with mental health difficulties and those that know them keep up the pressure and the communication so that politicians know what we think those policies should be.

Get registered

If you want to find out more information on how to register to vote, go to the Election Commission’s website: www.aboutmyvote.co.uk – you can register to vote by typing in your postcode and following some simple instructions.

Get in touch

To find out what your MP and other political representatives are saying about mental health and other issues, go to www.theyworkforyou.com

To contact your MP or other people who represent you go to www.writetothem.com

MPs regularly hold surgeries, when they meet members of the public. Your local newspaper will have details. You will also receive election leaflets through your letterbox in the coming months outlining your local candidates’ policies and contact details.

Send a message to the next government

Rethink are collecting signatures for a petition to deliver to the next government.

The petition reads:

We, the undersigned, believe that it is wrong that in 2010 people with mental illnesses like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are STILL…

· Missing out on basic treatments like psychological therapy and basic information

· Facing discrimination in everyday life from colleagues, neighbours and friends

· Too often locked up in prison without any healthcare.

So we want:

· Everyone affected by mental illness to be able to access decent treatment, including psychological therapy and family support, regardless of where they live or how much they earn

· Public attitudes to mental illness to be changed through a government funded campaign

· Prisoners with mental illnesses to be in NHS care.

We are calling for the next government to make this a reality!

To sign the petition online go to: www.rethink.org/election

Additional research: David Floyd

This feature first appeared in the Spring 2010 edition of One in Four magazine

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