Theresa May’s first speech of 2017 focused on mental health

In her first speech of 2017 at the Charity Commission’s annual lecture on Monday 9 January,the Prime Minister spoke of ‘burning injustices’ and chose to focus on “the burning injustice of mental health”.

We definitely welcome mental health being in focus, but very little of what was said is new and very little was said about making a difference to those who have been hardest hit by cuts, conditions and coercion. It’s a ‘good news story’ with an absence of meaningful monetary commitment and a very concerning interpretation of the circumstances which foster the country’s current poor mental health.

Mental health spending has decreased by 8% and the lack of ring-fencing has led to allocated funds for mental health CAHMS being raided for other parts of the system. As Jonathan Martin, Department of Health Director of Community, Mental Health and 7 Day Services repeated elements of Theresa May’s speech and reiterated that ‘there is no money, so we have to be ‘creative and innovative’.

David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ has been replaced by Theresa May’s ‘Shared Society’ – our ‘responsibilities towards each other’ and the ‘ties that bind our society together’.

We’re not certain that our society itself lacks in sense of solidarity. For our part, NSUN has created a sense of solidarity between its members to ‘transform support and defeat the stigma’, taking responsibility and being proactive in improving the situations people are finding themselves in.

As a user-led network, NSUN has been striving to strengthen ties between people and groups to ‘voice views and concerns’ and to influence decisions and action over the last 10-years.

Our members do remember when they have been consulted with and when they haven’t, and as a result of years of struggling to be meaningfully involved in shaping their own care and wider political and social discourse they developed a framework for involvement and co-production.

NSUN wrote to the Prime Minister in July 2016 asking for a specific focus on mental health within the cabinet, for the government to provide more support for informal networks and user-led groups, and to champion the user-developed 4Pi National Involvement Standards. As one of our members recently said “In the current political climate – the most important thing you can do is keep people connected.”

Discussion within our grassroots networks and groups do not reflect the PM’s explanation of ‘globalisation, democratisation of communications and cult individualism’ as the causes underlying broken ties within society. What we do hear from our members is that they continue to have incredible challenges and experience unacceptable inequalities which means they often have to rely on the state for help and support. This is a result of ‘burning injustices’ and the impact of the cuts, austerity and coercion on their everyday lives.

A recent review of our group membership has revealed a staggering figure of 219 closures for 2015 – 2016 alone. Most due to the withdrawal of funding and/or reduced capacity resulting in the breakdown and dissolution of these groups and individuals.

The Prime Minister’s speech fails to address this context, which our membership is all too aware of: some shared their experiences with the inquiry which led to the production of the recently published United Nations CRPD report, which states that austerity policies ‘amount to violations of disabled people’s rights’. The UK government, however, rejected the UN report and its 11 recommendations.

Our members are also very concerned about plans by the Government to abandon the Human Rights Act and take the UK out of the European commission for Human rights. A recent poll on our website reveals that 98% of NSUN members and followers are concerned about the Human rights situation we describe in our article here. Far from addressing these issues, which we could say are as ‘burning’ as those spoken of in the speech, the Prime Minister chose to not place the current mental health crisis within the context which fosters it.

Whilst Jeremy Hunt speaks of investments and both Mrs May and Mr Hunt talk of a medical model approach, which implies a lot of NHS driven delivery, none of their addresses take into account the deepening difficulties the National Health service finds itself in.

The speech was received as a formal acknowledgement of the recommendations made by the Independent Mental Health Taskforce with some of the steps towards delivery. Given the struggles the NHS currently faces, how can all this be made reality?

And what of non NHS, non medical contexts and solutions? None of the growing and well known approaches which detract from the ‘medical model’ were acknowledged by Theresa May or Jeremy Hunt.

Commentary since the speech has acknowledged the important focus on prevention. However, we question the absence of commitments for adults who have developed severe or enduring problems and those unable to work because of profound distress in these ‘plans to reform mental health services’.

The Prime Minister’s focus on children mental health as well as mental health in the work place (‘because it affects productivity’) seems typical of a government still inspired by the neo liberal agenda (whether the speech openly mentions neo liberalism or not) where children must be educated to grow into functional workers and where workers appear deserving whilst those not in work are criticised or, it seems here, simply not worth speaking of.

Our NSUN Members’ Manifesto 2015 at the time of the last general election, called on the government to take note of our priority issues. We now publish our Members’ Manifesto 2017, a similar powerful and clear collection of the hopes and needs of our members –our voices, our values, our rights. Sadly, again we are disappointed that (as in 2015) our priorities are inadequately acknowledged if even addressed.

To conclude, we’d like to quote NSUN member Mark Brown’s sentiments on the Prime Minister’s speech, verbatim:

“These are those of us with mental health difficulties whom austerity policies have hurt directly, the people who will not ‘get better’ and who will always need support from The State. The nitty-gritty non-shiny lives of people with severe mental health difficulties are seldom discussed in terms of injustice because there are no guaranteed happy endings and exposing them gives no one a rosy glow.”

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