Watching the "Ask the Chancellors" debate on channel 4 last night I once again heard Vince Cable commit to increased spending on mental health services:
"If we save money on NHS admin it should first go to neglected areas like mental health."
Mental health is not a fashionable area of service provision but I have heard Vince work this commitment into interviews on television before and I have to say it fills me with pride every time it happens.
Mental health services are not something that will come up in focus groups. Nor are they something that focus will be drawn to by the lobbying efforts of wealthy charities. There is still a considerable stigma attached to mental illness which restricts the public's ability to speak out about the failings of our current system. It is to Vince Cable and Norman Lamb's enormous credit that they have stated their first-hand family experience of mental illness. I only wish more people could find the courage to do the same.
My own first-hand experience of mental illness started as I was finishing school and going to university while living at home with my family in Glasgow. My brother had entered the same university the year before to study Scottish history and politics, was in his first real relationship, and was training several times a week for his career as an international volleyball player. He always tended towards over-analysing things, but this analysis started to make less and less sense. At first I put the fact I couldn't understand him anymore down to the fact that he was doing arts and I was going to do sciences like my parents, but I eventually received a lecture in my 1st year Psychology course that suggested something else might be going on.
After some further reading, and on a family holiday that was basically an escape from my brother's increasingly erratic behaviour, I suggested to my parents that my brother might be schizophrenic as we walked down a quiet country lane. None of us really knew what it meant at that time. But we had an extremely difficult time of it learning what it meant over the next few years as we struggled to get my brother treatment against a GP who thought my brother "seemed fine", and then struggled to keep ourselves mentally healthy through visits to the psychiatric ward, depressing periods in which my brother's body (not his soul) was released back into the family home, and then frightening periods in which it was quite clear that the family home was not the best place for him to be.
It was during this traumatic time that I first became politically active, joining up with a group of mothers of schizophrenics who regularly attended the cross party groups on mental illness at the Scottish Parliament. I had taken from my experience a determination that what had happened to me should happen to as few further people as was possible.
I thought at the time and still think now that teenagers should not have to rely on lectures they receive in university courses for their education on mental health. Early intervention is vital in minimising mental illnesses' effects on families and improving outcomes for the patient. The best way to facilitate early intervention in mental illness is to ensure that the population has the means to identify early warning signs, and for primary care services to be sufficiently trained in mental health issues for them to be able to act appropriately when concerns are raised. It is time for the British stiff upper lip to be allowed the luxury of movement and for comprehensive mental health and relationships education to be rolled out across all schools. If a politician's job is not to safeguard the happiness of the citizens then what exactly is it they are supposed to be doing?
There are millions of voters out there who will have been similarly pleased to hear a politician announce further investment in mental health services. I hope it continues to be something which appears in our pre-election message, though perhaps with further commitments to mental health education alongside the much-needed health service investment. Identifying policies that speak to the silent majority who do not shout and stamp their feet about issues seems to me to be a very sensible way of approaching a general election campaign. Long may it continue.
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