Why is mental health a topic pertinent to all contemporary public policy?

In the UK in particular, but also in Australia, debate about mental health and mental illness are increasingly appearing on political agendas and appearing in the mainstream media. Whilst there is a concerted effort to reduce the stigma attached to mental illness, mental health and illness remain largely located in health focused policy debates. In the post below, Dr Sarah-Jane Fenton looks at why mental health is a topic pertinent to all contemporary public policy, and uses highlights from recent blog posts to show how embedding understanding of mental health issues should be central to all policy maker’s agendas.

There has been increasing attention paid to mental health and illness in politics and policy agendas in both the UK and Australia. The need to improve access to and services for mental illness have been promoted by political parties as key bargaining tools in elections, and this week has seen the UK government continue to be embroiled in discussions about staffing for core mental health services. However, mental health services and the individuals accessing those services do not operate in isolation of wider social, environmental and policy contexts. There is significant impact from other policy decisions on those suffering with mental illness. Interestingly, the recent editorial in the British Journal of Psychiatry recognised this in their discussion of the impact of austerity and inequality on sustainable mental health interventions. However, discussions about mental health policy are not sufficiently drawn into wider core social policy debates, often being left as a sub-topic of the wider health/other policy agendas.

This is not just about what happens at the political or national policy level – the repercussions of not viewing mental health as central to contemporary public policy are witnessed within services. I currently work on an NIHR funded study that examines which of the many different approaches to collecting and using patient experience data are the most useful for supporting improvements in inpatient mental health care  (EURIPIDES). As part of this work we have a Service User and Carer Reference Group run by the Mental Health Foundation. In one of our last meetings, that group raised a challenge (hence this blog post) to raise awareness of the impact of wider issues relating to austerity and cuts on the lived experience of people with mental illness. They raised concern about friends or family members who had found the April 2017 cuts and changes to benefits supporting those with mental illness in the UK so distressing and complicated, that they had become increasingly unwell and secured inpatient admissions to manage their distress. They spoke of the impact in their wider support groups and networks and of how these changes had impacted their wider community of people with lived experience, some of whom had experienced readmission after many years of not being admitted to wards following recent suicide attempts. These experiences are integral to ongoing debates about austerity and social policy.

Raising awareness of mental health and reducing the stigma attached to mental illness needs to be relocated at the core of public policy, and not sit ‘alongside’ or as ‘associated with’ what are felt to be key social policy themes. Power to Persuade is an Australian focused Multi-Author Blog with a global scope that brings together blog posts that focus on social policy issues. To support a movement towards the integration of mental health and illness into wider social policy discussions, this blog has started to pick up particular mental health policy issues that relate to wider public policy. In recent months the blog has featured posts such as:

Awareness raising of male eating disorders in the UK.

Asking the experts: using the lived experience of older adults with depression to inform policy and practice.

What’s in a word? The language of self-harm and suicide (and why it matters)

When we can’t see the forest for the trees: exploring the invisibility of eating disorders in mental health contexts.

What can Australia’s approach to mental health teach the English? Professor Paul Burstow sets out some of his reflections from a recent two-week fact finding visit.

It is hoped that these posts will help to open up debate in wider social policy areas about mental health and illness.