OPINION: Health secretary Jeremy Hunt gives this newspaper his view on local and national mental health priorities

PUBLISHED: 08:40 08 May 2017 | UPDATED: 09:27 08 May 2017

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt. Photo: Neil Hall/PA Wire

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt. Photo: Neil Hall/PA Wire

In recent months we have seen huge progress in the fight to bring mental illness out of the shadows.

The whole country was touched by Prince Harry’s brave decision to speak out about the impact of his mother’s death. Politicians from all parties and people from all walks of life have opened up about their own struggles. And Theresa May became the first prime minister to make tackling the burning injustice of patchy mental health provision a personal priority in her very first speech on the steps of Downing Street.

Combatting stigma and breaking taboos is a crucial first step, but as people feel more able to open up about problems, it’s up to the Government to make sure they get the help and protection they need. That’s why the prime minister announced yesterday, Sunday, that if re-elected we will make sweeping changes to the laws around mental health, and the treatments on offer.

Crucially, on the back of a strong economy we are committing to fund an extra 10,000 staff working in NHS mental health services over the next three years, as well as starting to train extra psychiatrists to provide speedy specialist help when people find themselves in crisis. The simple reason the British people hold such deep affection for our National Health Service is the brilliance of our NHS staff. This is especially true in mental health, where the human touch is so vital in getting to the heart of the problem.

Demand on our NHS and its workforce is constantly increasing, and we expect around a million extra people to be accessing NHS mental health treatment by 2020 compared to 10 years ago. As the stigma that stops people speaking out continues to be eroded, this will mean many more of us, our friends and family members living with good mental health, or getting on the road to recovery.

I know the Norfolk and Suffolk mental health trust has made significant improvements recently and exited special measures. That’s a tribute to frontline staff who are working extremely hard – and of course for mental health specialists that can be particularly stressful. So we want to see more staff locally in coming years to help promise each patient the best possible care.

We will also make overhauling the out-dated laws that govern treatment one of the first priorities of a new Conservative government. In the last decade, there has been a 43pc increase in the number of people detained under the three decades old Mental Health Act. I have heard of too many cases where vulnerable children and adults are detained inappropriately, often because they didn’t get the treatment they needed in time to prevent their condition deteriorating. Black people in particular are significantly more likely to be detained. So we will rip up the 1983 Act and replace it with a new Mental Health Treatment Bill, which will finally confront these problems, and focus on improving treatment and early intervention across the board.

We know the NHS alone cannot solve this problem. We need schools and workplaces to modernise their approach as well. So we will also reform the laws around equality and workplace discrimination to provide tough new protections for workers suffering from problems like depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder - illnesses which are no less real or painful than physical conditions, but which have been treated differently under the law until now. Employment is closely linked with well-being, so we need to do everything we can to provide flexible and supportive workplaces for people suffering from mental illness.

As with so many health issues, spotting the problem early is key to tackling mental illness. Over half of mental health problems actually start before the age of 14, and issues like cyber-bullying and peer pressure via social media pose huge threats to our children’s wellbeing. We cannot simply wait for them to turn to the NHS in crisis: we need to be there for them in their schools too. So we are also committing to equip every single school in England with a staff member specifically trained to respond to mental health issues and emergencies, as well as expanding the curriculum to include subjects such as mental wellbeing and staying safe online.

We want every single person suffering with mental health issues to know they are not alone, and there is zero shame, and in fact strong support, when they speak out. These reforms are a vital part of Theresa May’s plan to build a society that works for everyone, not just the privileged few – and they demonstrate the positive difference strong and stable leadership can make to the lives of our most vulnerable citizens.

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