Harriet Harman

Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. Mother of the House of Commons.

South London Press column: Challenging the taboo of mental health

One in four of us will suffer a mental health problem at some stage during our lives.  We all know someone who has one of the common mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety or a more complex condition such as bi-polar disorder.

As your local MP, I have helped a number of constituents who have got into problems arising from mental ill health but for too long we - as a society - haven’t felt able to talk about mental illness with the same openness as we talk about our physical health. It was only in 2012 that MPs spoke for the first time in a debate in Parliament about their own mental health problems. Kevan Jones, the MP for North Durham, spoke about how he coped with depression and Dr Sarah Wollaston, MP for Totnes, spoke about the severe post-natal depression she suffered. Their willingness to speak openly about coping with mental health problems did much to challenge the stigma and has led to many more people in public life talking about managing and succeeding in their lives despite mental ill health.

Challenging the taboo and stigma is important. But we also need to ensure that the services for mental ill health are given as much priority as the services for physical ill health. We have argued for "parity" between mental and physical healthcare. If you have cancer or suffer a broken leg, the NHS has targets for treating you as quickly as possible. But if you’re depressed or anxious it can be months before you’re able to see a mental health specialist.

Earlier this month I met the Chief Executive, Dr Matthew Patrick, of the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust (SLaM) in Camberwell which is the largest provider of mental health services in the UK. It’s at the forefront of tackling the stigma of mental illness - pioneering innovative support programmes in the community, using former patients to help support people recovering from a crisis, and making it easier for people to access help quickly using social media like Twitter. The SLaM is doing a very important job.  But like so many NHS services it’s facing an increase in demand at a time when its funding is being cut.

Locally the Maudsley Hospital is at full capacity with 100% bed occupancy. Some patients stay longer in hospital because there is nowhere they can go when they are discharged. The time a patient stays in the Maudsley has now gone up from 15 days to 25 days. If you have nowhere to go or don’t have the right support in place when you leave hospital, you are more likely to relapse and end up going back into hospital.

This bed ‘crisis’ is having a knock-on effect on the neighbouring A&E department at King’s College Hospital which has seen an increase in patients requiring mental health support because they have nowhere else to go.

Rethinking mental health policy will be a priority for the next Labour Government.  We have already put forward proposals to improve access to mental health services in the NHS, including strengthening patients’ legal right to talking therapies, mental health training for all NHS staff and ending the stigma of mental health by integrating physical and mental healthcare.

By talking about mental health more openly, improving access to therapies and working with mental health trusts like SLaM, we will ensure that mental health stays on the agenda until everybody who is unwell, regardless of whether they have a physical or mental illness gets the help and support they need.

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