October 11, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith
Nick Clegg brought the curtain down on the Liberal Democrats’ conference with a centerpiece that surprised many, as there had been little warning of it. He has promised to institute an 18-week waiting time target for people with common mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. The overall aim is to put treatment for mental health on a par with treatment for physical health from 2015. The pledge will be on the front of the Lib Dems’ 2015 election manifesto.
It is a highly unusual move for a mainstream political party leader to put mental health front and center of their party’s policy programme and also their last conference speech before a general election. But this is a vital issue, and one that has too often been ignored. Clegg says that he wants to force a public debate and to challenge taboos about mental illness, and setting up a measurable target around treatment for mental health is a way to do that. Yes, it DOES differentiate the Lib Dems from the Conservatives and Labour at a time when that differentiation is needed, quite frankly, for their political survival. But if they were going to choose an area to differentiate themselves, it is good that they are focusing on something so important.
Because mental health problems afflict far more people than many realise. The reason many don’t realise it is because of the stigma that those who have them think will attach to themselves if it comes out in the open. According to the Royal College of Psychologists – Anxiety will affect 10% of the population. Bipolar disorder will affect one in 100. One in every 150 15-year-old girls will get anorexia, and one in every 1000 15-year-old boys. 20% of people will become depressed at some point in their lives. OCD will affect 2%. Personality disorder will also affect one in 10, though for some it won’t be severe. Schizophrenia will affect one in 100. The key thing to understand is that early diagnosis, and treatment, can make a MASSIVE difference to helping people with their mental health.
In his speech – Clegg said that “It is wrong that relatives and friends needing a hip operation can expect treatment within a clear timeframe but someone with a debilitating mental health condition has no clarity about when they will get help.I want this to be a country where a young dad chatting at school gates will feel as comfortable discussing anxiety, stress, depression, as the mum who is explaining she sprained her ankle.”
The Lib Dems will set aside more than £500m in their manifesto for a long term programme to tackle mental health. People needing “talking therapies” will be guaranteed treatment in as little as six weeks. The maximum wait for 95% of mental health cases will be 18 weeks. Furthermore, patients suffering more serious problems such as psychosis will be offered treatment within two weeks of referral – bringing the service into line with targets for cancer referrals.
In the long term though – these targets may be more difficult to meet – because there is little data available to know what the latent demand for these services will be, particularly if the aim of reducing the stigma around mental health is achieved. To be honest, though, it is the latter target which is far more important than the former. So well done the Lib Dems for bringing it out in the open.