Time and again, mental health is seemingly forgotten about in Westminster. The stories of patients being sent out-of-area to access vital treatment, the cuts to the number of inpatient mental health beds, and U-turns on therapy investment are nothing new. Yet under the coalition and the current Conservative government, it has seemed as though there would be no end in sight for this backseat approach to tackling mental illness.
However, with Jeremy Corbyn as the new leader of the Labour Party, we could hopefully soon be seeing stronger, realistic, and thoroughly researched policies being discussed in the Commons. The new role of Shadow Mental Health Minister is arguably one of the most progressive moves by any major political party in recent years, but with the current provisions for mental health failing those who rely on the NHS to provide them with the carethey deserve, the job in hand will be by no means an easy one to take on.
The responsibility of the newly created Cabinet-level role has fallen on Luciana Berger, former Shadow Minister for Public Health who has also served as MP for Liverpool Wavertree since 2010. Despite campaigning heavily for Andy Burnham during the Labour Party leadership race, Berger has stepped up to her new role after a “full and frank” discussion with newly elected leader Jeremy Corbyn, and has already begun to set out plans to improve mental health care in the UK.
Speaking shortly after her appointment to the role, Berger rightly warned that mental health services in the UK are underfunded, with budgets being cut year on year. The warning came just a month after the Department of Health released statistics showing that it would fail to invest enough money into children’s mental health services, leaving them £107m short of their target.
Berger’s background as Shadow Minister for Public Health under Ed Miliband should serve her well when it comes to her new role. In her short time as an MP, she has consistently stuck to the party line and voted against measures pushing for the privatisation of the NHS; a move which could potentially put the future of accessible and affordable treatment at risk. One thing that may cause worry for some is that although this isn’t her first ministerial role, Berger is still a relatively new MP, having only been in Parliament for 5 years. Additionally, she openly disagrees with Jeremy Corbyn on a wide range of issues, but she is by no means the only one. However, Berger has made it very clear that despite her other commitments in politics, she is here first and foremost to carry out the role of Shadow Mental Health Minister.
As Shadow Mental Health Minister, Berger is not only responsible for holding the government to account for their broken promises in the last five years; she’s also laid out plans to tackle the stigma and discrimination that often comes with having a mental illness. Speaking to the Sunday Mirror, Berger stated that “we need a cultural shift in our society, and I want to do everything to make sure that we treat mental health in exactly the same way that we treat physical health”. This is a message that has been spoken time and time again, yet the negative attitude towards mental health is still prevalent in society. Hopefully, by giving Berger a stand-alone platform to promote these ideas, more pressure will be put on the Conservative government to make them a reality.
So what does this new role demonstrate about Jeremy Corbyn and his leadership as a whole? With no direct counterpart in the Conservative Cabinet, the ministerial position is the first of its kind. Instead of attending interviews the day after his landslide election in the leadership race, Corbyn attended a fundraiser with the NHS Mental Health Trust in his own constituency of Islington North, clearly wasting no time in getting directly involved with the issue at a grassroots level. In the past, Corbyn has proved himself to be an excellent spokesperson on mental health, with proposals including: introducing mental health education as a compulsory part of the school curriculum; challenging the high rates of mental illness among women, and tackling the over-representation of people with mental health conditions in the prison system.
These proposals are by no means idealistic or radical; they’re vital steps that need to be taken if we’re ever going to see a change in the way that mental health is perceived in the UK. As Corbyn has said, “The Tory rhetoric about improving mental health provision has been accompanied by cuts in funding, services and support”, but by bringing the topic to the very top of the political agenda, it encourages an honest debate on mental health, hopefully helping to break down the negative connotations that surround it in the process.
With at least five more years under a Conservative government, a shift in attitude towards mental health is unlikely to happen overnight, but thanks to Jeremy Corbyn, we could soon be seeing the issue getting the attention it deserves.