Jack Callaghan assesses what the next Labour Government can do to tackle mental health, reacting to Rosena Allin-Khan’s conference speech.
Amongst all the great policies announced at Labour Conference, one speech stood out to me: Rosena Allin-Khan’s speech on mental health. In this address, she highlighted the failures of the Conservative Party in tackling the mental health emergency, with over 1.6 million, or as Allin-Khan put it, the entire populations of Birmingham and Liverpool put together, waiting for mental health treatment right now under the NHS. Although this is symptomatic of a wider Tory problem of mismanagement and underfunding within the NHS, this shows a particular lack of attention from the Conservative government on mental health, which is worrying, as we are most likely facing the greatest mental health emergency in recent history.
In her speech, Allin-Khan set out Labour’s plan, stating that they would focus on prevention as their main approach to mental health. She stated that this approach would guarantee NHS mental health support within a month, improve service quality for patients, and recruit eight and a half thousand new members of mental health staff in their first term in government. In addition, Allin-Khan also made a guarantee that the Labour Party would allocate a fair amount of funding towards mental health, which is something that the Conservative Party have failed to achieve throughout their 12 years in government. As highlighted in her speech, the Tories have cut a quarter of mental health places in our hospitals, showing a real lack of investment in mental health services.
Labour’s promise of mental health support within only a month is an ambitious yet welcome announcement to the millions of people who often wait months and sometimes even years to access mental health treatment under the NHS. As Allin-Khan acknowledged in her speech, your ability to access NHS mental health support is often reliant on your postcode rather than your need, and the shortage of available appointments sometimes forces people to resort to private health providers, which goes against the original purpose of the NHS as a free-at-the-point of use, universal service, as envisaged when Labour first introduced the NHS after WWII.
Allin-Khan also announced a particular focus on mental health among young people, including the introduction of mental health hubs for under-25s, and the placement of specialist mental health support in every school. This is important, because it shows that the Labour Party are acknowledging the struggles of young people, which is a great improvement after 12 years of Tory ignorance towards the needs of young people. She also acknowledged that young people are likely to face mental health struggles, noting that referrals for young people with eating disorders have doubled, and that referrals for young people who are self-harming has tripled. We have even seen this epidemic of youth mental health problems in Parliament, with Nadia Whittome, the baby of the house and the Labour MP for Nottingham East, inspiringly sharing her own experience with PTSD, including the stigma attached mental health as a young person in politics.
In her speech, Allin-Khan also stated that we are unable to separate a person from factors like their class, gender, race, or sexuality; while this is true, there are ways for Labour to address these factors when they intersect with the issue of mental health. For example, according to Safeline, an organisation specialising in sexual violence and abuse, 76% of suicides in the UK are men, and suicide is the largest killer of men under 35 in the UK. Therefore, Labour should also turn their focus towards the issue of men’s mental health, not only towards support and treatment, but also towards removing the stigma which prevents men from opening up about their mental health. This intervention should start early on, teaching young men in school that there is no shame in feeling and showing their emotions, and showing them healthy ways to release said emotions.
In addition, Stonewall’s 2018 Health Report on LGBTQIA+ people in the UK found that 52% of LGBTQ+ people experienced depression in the last year, 35% of transgender people (including 41% of non-binary people) self-harmed in the last year, and that 46% of transgender people had thought about taking their own life in the last year, with 31% of LGB people who aren’t transgender saying the same. This shows that the UK is facing a serious issue of mental health issues among LGBTQIA+ people, particularly LGBTQIA+ young people, which Labour needs to address. However, Labour have already paid significant attention to the worries of LGBTQIA+ people, including making a pledge to ban transgender conversion therapy once and for all, so I am hopeful that Labour will acknowledge and address this issue.
Mental health is one of the most pressing issues for the next Labour government to address. The Conservatives have proven themselves unable to handle the mental health emergency we are presently facing, so it is vital that Allin-Khan and the Labour Party pursue the hopeful, yet sensible platform laid out at Conference, to show a real alternative to the Tory inaction and incompetence of the present government. By pursuing a platform of prevention, we will not only relieve the strain on mental health treatment and the wider NHS, but we will also ensure that everyone who needs NHS mental health treatment is able to access it within a month. This is vital to an approach which prioritises humans and their needs over numbers or statistics, which will separate the Labour Party from the ignorant and soulless approach of the Tories over the past 12 years.
Jack Callaghan is an A-Level student from Hartlepool. They are interested in education, the environment, and socialist, working-class politics.