Missing the Blindingly Obvious – The Government’s Approach to Tackling Mental Ill-Health

Have you read the report ‘Working our way to better mental health: a framework for action’ recently issued by the cross departmental Health Work and Wellbeing team? There are 65 commitments to improving the problems associated with mental ill-health and work but not one to reduce the wait time in accessing the right clinical support through the NHS. 

I’m not going to criticise the well meaning intention of this framework or indeed some of the very positive commitments made in supporting people affected. But it does not address one of the most blindingly obvious reasons why we have so many people absent from work with mental health conditions – they are not being diagnosed or treated early enough to enable them to get back to work.

What makes me say this? Just look at a recent article in the Times which highlighted that it is not uncommon for wait times of six months before you can see an NHS counsellor. The lack of available services means that GPs are prescribing medication that itself causes side effects and potentially avoidable complications. I was staggered to read that an estimated 2m people are long term users of anti-depressants, many of them women of working age.

How much of the estimated £17.3bn cost of absence attributable to mental ill-health is down to this lack of prioritising early intervention? In the government’s proposed legislation to guarantee NHS wait times of 18 weeks, mental health services are not included. Why not?

Much of the government’s new framework is based on ‘prevention is better than cure’. Bearing in mind the stats that show the reducing likelihood of employees ever returning to work the longer their mental ill-health symptoms are left unchecked, we need to put a new twist on this mantra.

For mental ill-health we need to be saying ‘prevention is better than cure but cure can be the best form of prevention’

As it stands for employers – much of the emphasis in the framework is on employers’ responsibility in this area – they will continue to be the arbiters of whether their affected employees get the help they need by paying for it privately. Not all of them will.

I’d like the government to spend more time looking at the cost effectiveness of improving speed of access to treatment and what impact this would have on the £17.3bn. I’m convinced that the economic case for investing in better NHS mental health provision would prove irresistible if only they took the time to analyse it.