Stephen Lambert: Mental ill health is a problem that we cannot afford to ignore

Newcastle city councillor Stephen Lambert says awareness of mental health issues is rising - but there is still a long way to go

Anna Gowthorpe/PA Wire A photo to illustrate mental health problems
A photo to illustrate mental health problems

It’s estimated by MIND and other charities that one in six people in the UK will experience a mental health problem in any given year – a conservative figure according to lead campaigners on the issue such as Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former spin doctor. In the North East, research reveals that one in four have a mental health problem, ranging from depression to severe anxiety and stress.

Mental illness, which has a number of manifestations, has replaced unemployment as the country’s largest social problem. More people with mental health issues were drawing incapacity or DLA benefits, than there were jobless people on the ‘dole’ in 2012. The World Health Organisation indicate that clinical depression will be the second most common health condition both in the UK and elsewhere in the world by 2020.

Mental ill health costs some £105bn each year in England alone. So depression is not only bad for overall happiness, it’s bad for GDP too. Alarmingly, citizens with a severe mental illness die up to 20 years younger than their peers in the UK, and there remains a clear link between mental ill health, bad housing, unemployment, family problems, debt, poor education, learning disabilities, crime, alcohol dependency and social isolation. All this is compounded by stigma and discrimination, despite the Equality Act of 2010.

Negative stereotypes still exist. It’s suggested that people with a mental illness are more likely to commit crime and harm others. Wrong. Many victims of crime tend to be people with mental health problems, according to the British Crime Survey. And few are a danger to society.

Much has been achieved by charities such MIND, Rethink Mental Illness and the Time For Change campaign to break down stigma and taboo surrounding mental illness. But perhaps, one of the biggest and bravest attempts to highlight this issue was the decision by four MPs last autumn, including North East MP Kevan Jones, to describe their own experiences of depression.

Newcastle City councillor Stephen Lambert
Newcastle City councillor Stephen Lambert

As Alistair Campbell, who had a serious nervous breakdown twenty 20 ago, rightly points out, depression is a horrible illness for which there is too little understanding. He says: “The nearest I can come to describing it is that when its strikes you feel dead and alive at the same time.” Quite right too.

But more needs to be done to challenge negative labelling and mental health discrimination. To their credit, some larger employers in the region, such as NCG, have designated themselves as ‘Mindful Employers’ and ‘Positive About Disabled People – though this may command overall support from executive management, much more needs to be done to educate junior managers and other staff members about the issue. Moreover, there’s a clear case to toughen up the Equality Act and the DDA, which offers some legal protection from discriminatory practices at work, by bringing in an Anti-Mental Health Discrimination Act.

Too often mental health services provided by the government are patchy, and treated like a ‘cinderella service’. According to Campbell in his book, ‘The Happy Depressive’, only a quarter of those suffering from mental health issues such as depression or anxiety are getting any kind of treatment or support, and that usually means drugs.

One of the country’s lead experts on the condition, Richard Layard, recommended training an extra 10,000 clinical psychologists and therapists to provide cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for those suffering clinical depression, through 250 local treatment centres, providing therapy courses costing £750. This would save the state millions of pounds in paying out disability benefits and lost tax receipts.

Earlier this month, Newcastle Council re-affirmed its commitment, to those experiencing mental health issues. Mental health should be a priority across all functions of the council, and all councillors should play a positive role in championing mental health on both an individual and strategic basis.

Above all, we need to stamp out ignorance, prejudice, direct and indirect mental health discrimination, both in the workplace and wider society.

  • Stephen Lambert is a Newcastle City councillor


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