On Mental Health Awareness Day, Plaid Cymru Leader Leanne Wood writes about how mental health needs to be prioritised. This article first appeared in the Western Mail.
On Mental Health Awareness Day, it is worth reflecting on how far we have come from the days in which a mental illness would often confine people to a secure institution, sometimes for years at a time.
Society has changed for the better, and people with mental health problems are treated as people first and foremost. The Time to Change campaign aims to tackle stigma and prejudice towards those who have experienced, or continue to experience, mental health problems and it has highlighted just how common it is to experience depression, anxiety or another problem, but also how it is possible to emerge the other side.
To some extent, politics has been playing catch-up with these changes. Although mental health services are no longer regarded as easy targets to be cut (and in fact can’t be cut in Wales due to Plaid Cymru’s success in ring-fencing the budget when we were in government), the service still remains under-funded.
There are other steps that need to be taken for the political world to catch up.
It is still the case that too often employers lack understanding towards employees with mental health problems, compared with an employee with physical health problems. Although the Equality Act provides protections against direct and indirect discrimination, surveys have repeatedly shown that people who have had mental health problems are less likely to disclose their condition or apply for jobs or promotions, whilst many employers would not employ people who have had depression. With the prospect of employment protections for workers being rolled back following withdrawal from the European Union under a Conservative government increasingly on the far right, the only way we can protect and enhance the workplace rights of people with mental health problems is for the powers over employment law to be devolved to Wales.
It is also the case that there are still major gaps in service provision. This is most commonly felt by young people. There are those who need the specialist support provided by Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAHMS). They are facing increasingly longer waits for the first appointment following referral, often longer than four months. Four months during this important time in a young person’s life will inevitably affect their education.
But those young people waiting for CAHMs services are just the tip of the iceberg. National Case Audits have shown that many young people who committed suicide had not had any contact with mental health services, and those who had often failed to turn up for appointments.
Depression, anxiety and self-harm have become too common amongst a generation that have many worries about things like cyber bullying, pressure to fit an ideal body weight, and having been handed a future of zero-hours contracts, massive student debt and endless austerity from a generation of politicians in both Labour and the Conservatives who faced none of these.
We all know that investment in early years is crucial for positive outcomes in education and health, and in particular in preventing some of the problems that can arise later on in life. Developments in neuroscience are showing that the early teenage years can be just as crucial for a person’s development as the early years.
Yet whilst the Welsh Government has made a great deal about the (re) launch of Healthy Child Wales, for children aged 0-7, there is no strategy for improving the health of teenagers. However, the need for one is clear: the mortality rate for teenagers between 15 and 19 years old is higher in Wales than it is in England, and over the last three decades there has been no reduction in deaths from intentional injury among young people between 10 and 18 years old.
Improving the mental health and well-being of young people must be moved up the political agenda. Investing in better education and support for schools to help safeguard the mental health of teenagers is an obvious starting point for such a strategy. Schools of course will need to be equipped to support pupils, and helped to develop appropriate content that helps everyone. There also needs to be closer working with the health service to develop earlier interventions when problems occur.
On Mental Health Awareness Day we have to remember not only how far we have come as a society, but also how much more there is yet to be done.