Reflections from the President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists: Party Conference season
About 1 and a half years on and we’re in the Autumn of 2021. This time of year tends to bring a start of term feel, and it is also when the political parties in the UK set out their policy priorities.
Having seen a much-scaled back conference season in 2020, this year has been a great opportunity for the Labour Party, the Conservatives, and the Lib-Dems to set out their vision for a post-lockdown world.
We know that the pandemic has taken a huge toll on the nation’s mental health and so an ambitious response is needed.
The Centre for Mental Health estimated last year that 10 million people (8.5 million adults and 1.5 million children and young people) in England will need support for their mental health as a direct result of the pandemic over the next three to five years.
Many mental health teams around the country are already seeing high numbers of patients. The College’s analysis shows that nearly 1.5 million people were in contact with mental health services in June 2021, the highest number since records began, and 12.4% more than the same time last year.
It is more important than ever that all sides of the political spectrum look at how we will help prevent people from becoming unwell, as well as cope with the unprecedented demand for services.
The conference season began with the Liberal Democrats. Although unlike the other parties this was an online event, I was pleased to hear Leader Ed Davey recognise in his speech the impact the pandemic has had on children. They have called for a Children’s Catch-up Fund to help to reverse children’s lost learning and the impact of lockdown on their mental health.
Associate Registrar, Tim Ojo, represented the College at this year’s Labour Party Conference taking place in Brighton. He attended a roundtable set up by the Royal College of Physicians and National Voices, along with Alex Norris MP, on how we can tackle the NHS backlog. Tim reminded everyone that you can’t just focus on the visible backlog in surgeries but also need to remember all the patients who need to get help with a mental illness.
As has been well documented, I believe that the COVID crisis has had the biggest impact on the nation’s mental health since the Second World War. This is a critical time for mental health, and it is vital that more money is invested to tackle the impact of COVID, meet the new demands placed by the proposed improvements to the Mental Health Act, meet new access standards and targets and deliver the promised reforms in the NHS Long Term Plan.
We were pleased to see that Labour Leader Keir Starmer’s conference speech talked about mental health as one of the urgent needs of our time. Moreover, he echoed what the College has been highlighting; that children have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. For example, we know that 190,271 0–18-year-olds were referred to children and young people’s mental health services between April and June this year, up 134% on the same period last year and 96% on 2019.
We welcome his pledge to guarantee NHS mental health treatment within a month for all who need it, along with 8,500 more mental health professionals to support a million more people every year. These promises will require a long-term plan for sustained and fair funding so that every person with a mental illness can get the help they deserve.
I have personally just come back from the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. This was a good opportunity to rub shoulders with those in government and others in the health sector and, importantly, ensure they understand the challenges we are facing in the mental health sector.
It was good to have the chance to catch up with MPs like Dean Russell, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for mental health and №10 advisor, Chloe Westley. She has a keen interest in the mental health of children and young people. But it was also an excellent opportunity to catch up with colleagues in the medical profession, including Chair of the British Medical Association (BMA) Council Chaand Nagpaul.
I attended two roundtables with politicians and other Royal Colleges, including one posing the question “what does the future of the NHS workforce look like?”. We know that a lack of trained staff is the biggest barrier to expanding mental health services and so that is why it’s so important that we have bold action to increase the workforce in the upcoming Spending Review, such as dramatically expanding the number of places in medical school.
The conference was particularly timely as it followed Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s cabinet reshuffle where Gillian Keegan MP was announced as the new Minister of State for Care and Mental Health. It was great to hear her facilitate an interesting discussion in the main auditorium on the impact of social media on children’s mental health. The challenges social media poses to children and young people’s mental health is something the College has long campaigned on. I’m looking forward to working more closely with her on this and other issues as she settles into her brief.
As the conference season comes to a close, we know that whether the government is red, blue, green, or orange, they must act to support our nation’s mental health as we emerge from the pandemic.
For too long mental health has struggled to be heard at the top table of NHS decision making, leaving many patients with a mental illness unable to access the care they need. That is why it is vital that the upcoming health and care bill is strengthened to guarantee that mental health is not overlooked again. As a College, we continue to work with politicians from across the political spectrum to ensure that the voice of our patients is heard.