I have given Nick Clegg a mild (very mild) kicking in the Spectator diary this week, so may I say a few words of praise and thanks to the embattled deputy PM.
If it is true that the government, at Clegg’s insistence, is intending to repeal section 141 of the Mental Health Act as part of the mental health strategy announced today, that is a good and welcome thing. I tried to get the last government to do it, not least when with Rethink, Mind and other charities I gave evidence to the Speaker’s Conference, but failed. It will not change many lives, but it is an important symbol. Section 141 means that MPs can lose their seat if they become mentally ill. No such measure exists for long-term physical health. It is therefore a piece of straightforward discrimination which fuels the stigma and taboo surrounding mental illness.
Good to see also the support – thus far verbal but hopefully backed up by cash – for continuing anti-stigma campaigns. Time to Change has shown that it is possible to change attitudes and to measure that change. But we still have a long way to go.
The main thrust of the Clegg advance briefing is the emphasis on putting mental health and physical health on an equal footing. Spot on in terms of tone, but the big challenge, at a time when cuts are starting to bite, is making it happen. In my own area, for example, two of the four main mental health centres are closing, even before the big wave of cuts has begun.
Of course what he seems to be saying is that if we adopt access to psychological therapies more routinely within the NHS, including for people with serious mental illnesses, more people will get the help they need early, and acute care beds may not be needed so much. Let’s hope so.
The other worry, as power gets shifted to GPs, is whether they are the right people to manage mental health services. They will need a lot of support to get up to speed. Rethink surveyed GPs and fewer than 1 in 3 say they feel ready to take on mental health commissioning duties.
This has never been the sexiest or easiest issue in the world. If Nick Clegg is seeking to become the voice of the mentally ill within government, then he deserves support. And I hope we will soon hear him make the argument that anyone who thinks cuts to mental health services are an easy option – the Conservative default position – should realise there are significant knock-on costs to the budgets for welfare, housing and the criminal justice system.