I was incredibly proud of the 2017 Labour Party manifesto for a variety of reasons. One of the most prominent for me though was that it was the first to take great strides in championing the cause of mental health. Awareness may be higher than it’s ever been, but treatment is too difficult to access and the stigma is still alive and kicking. From national newspapers splashing their front pages with headlines like ‘Nation hooked on happy pills’, to prominent politicians using mental health slurs against opponents, the idea that we’ve eradicated the stigma surrounding mental health problems is for the birds.
What we face in Britain, and much of the West, is a mental health crisis. 1 in 4 people in the UK experience a mental health problem each year, suicide is the most common form of death for men under 50, and mental health problems have caused over 40 million years of disability for 20-29 year olds. We often talk about mental health as if it is not a political issue. Yet, if we were staring down the barrel of a physical health crisis of this magnitude, and I were a betting man, I’d wager the political response would be swift and robust.
The way this Tory government has reacted to this crisis is all the evidence required to make the case that this should be a political cause, and one championed by Labour. From swingeing cuts to mental health services, sky-rocketing suicide rates, mentally ill young people sitting on treatment waiting lists for months on end, the system is in need of radical reform.
Labour have taken great steps, pledging greater funding, improved treatment and diagnosis, and appointing a Shadow Minister for Mental Health. But we have yet to go far enough. As Her Majesty’s Opposition, history will judge us unkindly if we do not push mental health to the forefront of the political agenda, mercilessly hold the government to account on its shortcomings on this issue, combat the gutter press narratives, and declare ourselves as the primary allies of those struggling with mental health. Indeed, many in our own ranks are adversely impacted, and I know from experience that it is a topic that unites people from the most distant wings of our broad church.
The Labour Party sits in opposition while the government oversees the most acute mental health crisis in modern British history. However, this does not consign us to sitting on our hands. Conversely, it makes it our moral duty to stand up and fight the corner of those most vulnerable in our society. It is in our very nature, and the fight must begin now, before it is too late.