'Theresa May, we don't need PR spin about tackling mental health – we need proper funding and action'

If we don't have efficient, well-supported services, then the entire endeavour of training education and business professionals in mental health literacy is pointless, writes the former government mental health champion

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Today, with massive amounts of fanfare, our prime minister has announced a new (and doubtless expensive) government drive to “reduce stigma” around mental health, which she describes as a “hidden injustice”.

Under the proposed scheme, businesses will be given mental health first-aid training (good), the relationship between schools and the NHS will be “improved” (eh?) and “an inquiry into the state of children and adolescent mental health services" will be launched.

These are the same children and adolescent mental health services that were ruthlessly cut by an estimated £50 million under David Cameron’s government, then further slashed by £8 million just two short months ago under Theresa May.

It doesn’t – or, at least, it shouldn’t – require an “inquiry” to determine exactly what has gone wrong here.

Further examination reveals that 57 per cent of clinical commissioning groups plan to reduce the proportion of their budget spent on mental health over the course of the next financial year.

The average local authority still spends only a paltry 1 per cent of its health budget on mental health services, with an investigation by the charity Young Minds showing that half chose to spend money apportioned to them specifically for the improvement of mental health “for other purposes”.

In light of these sorts of statistics, Ms May’s latest endeavour appears at best to be a diversionary technique and at worst an outrageous mistruth. Perhaps most disappointingly, however, it’s devastatingly unoriginal.

Just 18 months ago, in July 2015, Mr Cameron launched a similar PR campaign, pledging to “reduce stigma” with a series of impressive-sounding investigations into the state of mental health in schools and beyond.

In fact, so exciting was this apparent Tory U-turn on a topic they had historically ignored that I agreed to become the first government-endorsed “mental health champion”. This was a role sold to me as an “opportunity to influence policy” in a direct advisory role to the Department for Education.

I would say that we all know how that one ended, but perhaps you don’t. Nine months later I was unceremoniously dumped from the role, with a subsequent freedom of information request uncovering government emails describing me as someone who “needed to be taken down a peg of two”.

Depending on whom you ask, my fate was sealed when I made a speech to the HMC articulating the link between excessive academic pressure and poor mental health, or when I challenged then community and social care minister Alistair Burt during a public appearance on his government’s appalling record for attending to the interests of young people.

Yet the truth is, for me at least, that the shift happened much earlier than that. I vividly remember the moment when I thought, “I can’t do this any more."

'There is no money'

It was during a roundtable at the DfE. The chief executive officer of one of Britain’s largest mental health charities turned to me and said: “Natasha, if your vision of improvements to mental health necessitates investment into services, I’m afraid that is just a pipe dream. There is no money.”

The group then went on to enthusiastically discuss the launch of an app for young people that would cost millions of pounds. (“And at the end you get a badge,” said its inventor. “Young people love badges.”)

It was at that precise moment the disturbing truth hit me. This had never been about helping vulnerable young people. This was a marketing exercise in which I had been used as a pawn.

It was then that I made a promise to use the media attention the role had brought to draw attention to the scandalous and shambolic state of mental health services in this country – the 24-week waiting lists, the severe self-harm and suicide attempts that do not meet CAMHS' ever-spiralling thresholds, the blatant hypocrisy of a government that claims to prioritise mental health while presiding over an education system that places excessive strain on the wellbeing of both pupils and teachers.

I knew, of course, that I was on borrowed time, but I wrote and spoke with urgency and a few weeks later was removed from my post.

Now, Ms May is at it again, because the unavoidable truth is that the Conservatives know mental health is a vote winner – one in four of us will experience mental illnesses (and far, far more than that poor mental health) during our lifetimes – but they do not want to prop up an NHS they have worked so studiously to destroy and subsequently privatise. This gives them quite the dilemma.

Charities such as Time to Change, and organisations like Mental Health First Aid, as well as individual campaigners and media outlets, have already done extensive and spectacular work in reducing stigma around mental health.

Ms May has let them loosen the lid for her and now wants credit for unscrewing the jar. Easier, then, to focus on “stigma”, which should be the remit of campaigns and charities, and ignore the fact that without efficient services the entire endeavour of training education and business professionals in mental health literacy is, in essence, pointless.

Yet I hope that this time the public won’t allow themselves to be fooled.

The public purse is not the government’s personal PR fund. It’s meant to ensure free and universal access to vital services.

Stop spending our money on pretty words, Ms May, and start spending it on action.

Natasha Devon is the former UK government mental health champion for schools and founder of the Body Gossip Education Programme and the Self-Esteem Team. She tweets as @NatashaDevonMBE

For more columns by Natasha, visit her back-catalogue

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