When I first became an MP over 20 years ago mental illness was still very much a ‘taboo’ subject, a much neglected and misunderstood part of the NHS. It was something that happened to 'other people' and was little talked about. As shadow minister for mental health, at one time I was involved with the legislation to update the Mental Health Act but in many cases, it was more to do with how we could contain people with severe mental illness rather than treat them and respect their rights as fellow human beings.
Twenty years on, whilst there is still a lot to do, things have changed dramatically and essential to that has been changing people’s attitudes and bringing mental health out of the shadows. Given that at least 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental illness at some stage in our lives why wouldn’t we want to deal with mental illness on a level playing field with all the other illnesses and conditions the NHS deals with? It is first and foremost an illness and people with an illness need treatment and support not stigmatising and compartmentalising. To deal with an illness you first of all need to present with symptoms and secure a diagnosis, and these days many more people are willing to come forward and seek help.
Up and down the country I regularly see some fantastic schemes in schools, businesses and health settings offering all sorts of advice and services to people who may be suffering from all levels of mental illness. In many cases it is more about encouraging a healthy mental well-being recognising that a happy person learns better at school or produces more at work. Some progressive schools have become mindfulness schools offering meditation and reflective approaches to fend off low level depression. Given everything we hear about the relentless pressure of social media and the sometimes fatal impact that can have on impressionable young people, clearly, we are only dealing with the tip of the iceberg and much more urgent action is required.
Businesses invest in occupational mental wellness schemes to get the most out of their workforce. Even in Parliament we have recognised the particular stresses and pressures that Parliamentarians can be subject to (even without the particular challenges of Brexit!) and over 230 members of the Commons and Lords have undertaken the weekly mindfulness courses laid on for us, and I chair the All Party Parliamentary Mindfulness Group that oversees them.
The problem is that services are under pressure and good practice can be something of a postcode lottery. I see the problems at the sharp end as constituents approach me complaining that they have not been able to access services that they or family members desperately need, or they are having to wait far too long for appropriate treatment and in the meantime powerful drugs are all that is on offer. I am particularly concerned when I hear from schools that they have pupils with clear behavioural and mental illness problems, yet they apparently do not reach the threshold for clinical intervention, despite the fact their condition is clearly worsening, and they will fall behind or fall out of school altogether.
Recently I was approached by a young constituent who had recently graduated from university who had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders whilst studying and advised to seek an assessment for treatment when she returned home to Sussex after graduating. When she did so she was told she was on a waiting list of 300 and there was currently no clinician in place to assess her in any case. That particular student is very articulate and very determined and came to see me knowing what she needed and what wasn’t available. I took her to see the head of the mental health service to explain her story and I am glad to say that the assessor clinician position has now been filled and my constituent has been asked to act as a champion for young people needing support from mental health and learning disability services and scrutinise the work of the mental health trust.
That got us both thinking that we need to do more to help local people navigate their way around mental health services, especially those who may not have the amount of knowledge and expertise that my constituent does. Whether you are a parent worried that your child has been displaying some odd behaviours; one of the 1 in 6 mums who will experience some form of perinatal mental illness; a student concerned with all the pressures on them or an adult with regular bouts of mental illness, then we need to make the system more user-friendly. welcoming and easy to navigate.
Hence as a first try we have come up with this website. It is a first effort and the idea is for it to evolve organically informed by your feedback and your experiences. It contains a wide range of information about what mental illness involves and where you can go for more information. It is NOT a clinical advice website but rather one that gives information and signposts people to the real experts. So, I have included everything from explaining what the Government is doing about mental health in the NHS and what your rights are under the law through to detailing some of the many services available locally both within the NHS and the voluntary sector.
In particular I am keen to promote examples of best practice and I would like this to be a source of helpful information where people can come and find examples of what works elsewhere and challenge their own college or workplace to do something similar. But I also want it to be interactive, so I need you to tell me what services locally are not working and where you got the best support so that I can challenge the local NHS services to improve what they are doing or explain why things are not better and what they are doing about it.
I am delighted to say that the management of the Sussex Partnership Trust are supporting this initiative and just as they did when I took my young constituent to see them are keen to hear your feedback and disseminate as much helpful information as they can. You can do this anonymously through the website where you will see we have included some ‘chat boards’ or by emailing me directly if you are a constituent. I will then post occasional ‘report back’ videos and replies responding to the mar concerns that have been raised.
I hasten to reinforce that this is a genuine initial attempt at addressing a major issue for constituents and I am sure we will get some things wrong but with your help I hope that we can get a lot more right that will help many thousands of people who just happen to have a mental illness and need better support for dealing with it.