Theresa May is right to talk about mental health, both morally and economically


A close up of Theresa May looking steely and calm

The cavernous, echoing main hall of Glasgow’s Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre is not a venue in which inspiration comes easily. Much less when it is barely half-full, as was the case for Norman Lamb – the then Liberal Democrat minister in the Department of Health – in October 2014.

However, despite the sparse surroundings and an audience that was clearly feeling the effects of the organic cider from the night before, it was arguably one of the most important speeches made under the Coalition. Describing the way we treat mental health in this country as “morally wrong and economically stupid,” he pointedly noted the stigma that too often is attached to those with mental health problems – how Frank Bruno, ill at home, was met at his front door not by a paramedic or a GP or a mental health counsellor but three marked police cars.

A close up of a police officers hands as he makes notes in a notepad
Too often mental health can become a police issue CREDIT: JOE GIDDENS/PA

To his – and the now Prime Minister’s – credit, there was progress under the last Government. The number of mentally ill people landing in police cells because nobody knew where to put them has fallen significantly. The Time to Change programme began the work of opening up a proper conversation about people’s mental health in work. But there remains much to be done.

Today’s speech by the Prime Minister is welcome, in and of itself. Britain is not a place where it is easy to talk about mental health.

We are all rightly proud of our “stiff upper lip” – that natural reserve which seems to come almost preternaturally to those living here, reality TV stars aside. In a tumultuous world, it no doubt does us some good.

What that reserve – that “don’t make a scene” attitude – isn’t so helpful for is opening up a conversation around mental health. It was, in fact, the man once voted the greatest Briton of all time, Winston Churchill, who first popularised the euphemism “the black dog” as if talking in stark terms about depression and anxiety would hardly be befitting of a Brit.

Mental health touches every one of us in some way; where personally, professionally, or through friends and families, the damage caused and the failures that are sometimes evident in the system certainly prove Lamb’s “morally wrong” point.

But what about the “economy stupid”?

Lamb was right then, and the Prime Minister is right now to focus on employers as well as providers of services and schools in her speech today.

Some 127 million hours of work were lost last year due to mental health-related absence; the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development believes that a failure to cope adequately with mental health issues costs the UK some 4.5 per cent of its GDP. These are not small figures.

We must get over the stigma, we must ensure that we are providing the services for people with mental healthTheresa May

With more than 4 million Brits working at least 48 hours a week, the time that employees spend at work is increasingly the largest single component of their lives; more than they spend at home, or with family. And with so many of us “always-on” – checking emails, networking, and so on – the trade off has to be that employers do as much for their staff’s mental health as they do for their physical health.

Large organisations have, broadly, been able to adapt to the challenge. It is difficult to find a large corporate organisation without a “well-being strategy” or formal mental health policy. Some large companies in particularly high-pressure sectors, often in financial services, now employ in-house therapists and psychologists to allow their staff the time and space they need to “get their head right”.

But for the 99 per cent of British businesses which are small and medium-sized, there is a different challenge. Many such businesses have, at best, stretched human resources (HR) departments – if “HR” isn’t simply the day to day management of the company by an owner who works every hour that God sends simply navigating the myriad regulations around employment that Government has imposed on small businesses. Amid that background, is it any wonder that those firms often allow mental health to slip through the cracks?

The announcement today of a review into workplace practices around mental health is much-needed. It must deliver practical steps that small businesses can take in partnership with Government, giving business leaders not just the support they need to deliver advice and assistance to their staff, but to ensure that their mental health is where it should be, too. The answer is not regulation – there are enough legal burdens on business already – but a real “shared society” approach in which employers, charities, mental health providers and local and central government work together.

The arguments for addressing the lapses in our mental health infrastructure are sound, for moral reasons, yes, but for the good of the economy too. The Prime Minister talking about the subject – a subject too often barely talking about – is a good start indeed.