Berger: mental health service ‘crisis’

Ahead of World Mental Health day, the shadow mental health minister speaks out

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The new shadow cabinet minister for mental health has promised to hold the government to account over the impact its cuts are having on the quality and availability of mental health services. Luciana Berger, Labour MP for Wavertree Liverpool, said she had received a positive response to her appointment, the first time an opposition politician had been given a specific mental health portfolio.

“People are heartened by the fact that the opposition are taking this issue seriously,” she said. Having previously worked as the shadow minister for public health she admitted: “There’s a long way to go to get the equality and parity needed in the delivery of mental health services.” With cuts to health and local government budgets by the Conservative government services are at a “crisis point”, she added.

‘Overdue conversation’

Drawing on experience from her own constituency, Berger said: “I meet constituents all the time who are affected by cuts to the mental health budget – whether they’re affected themselves, through a family member, a carer or maybe they’ve waited for access to services for a very long time. This week I had a constituent who was appealing to the DWP because he was deemed fit for work after a capability assessment despite recommendations from his GP indicating otherwise, and spoke with a veteran who was concerned about the lack of support he was receiving.”

Berger called for a more integrated approach in the delivery of mental and physical health, and social care services. “As a nation we are long overdue a conversation about the way health, wealth and poverty interact and the impact austerity is having of individuals’ wellbeing,” she said.

In 2012 the coalition government scrapped its annual survey of investment in mental health services, making it difficult to assess the scale of the problem. Berger had to make her own freedom of information request to every clinical commissioning group in the country because of a lack of centrally collected data.


According to mental health charity Mind, one in four people will face a mental health problem this year. Suicide is the leading cause of death for men under the age of 50. The UK has one of the highest rates of self-harm in Europe, and, according to the Mental Health Foundation 1.6 million people in the UK are affected by eating disorders. She said that many people are finding it difficult to navigate the current system as a result of the government’s Health and Social Care Act, which fragmented services. “We should be looking at treating the person, not the affliction,” she said.

Berger stressed the importance of creating policies that aim to alleviate the pressures on vulnerable teenagers, as half of mental disorders begin before the age of 18. “The area I am keen to work on is in schools, to work together with teachers to support their students, and this needs to become the norm across our society and communities,” she said. “Part of my focus will be on the budget for child and adolescent mental health, because we know it is such a small percentage of the budget and we think it’s really important to support people when they’re younger.”

Recounting experience from her work in Liverpool with a mental health trust she stressed that only 3 per cent of its patients were in work. But she will also be focusing on the workplace, where employees with mental health problems often feel stigmatised.

Workplace stigma

According to research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development more than two-fifths of employers say they have seen an increase in cases reported by staff of conditions such as depression and anxiety.

Despite the increase Berger warned that many employees feel they cannot raise the subject with their bosses or managers. “We need to work harder to ensure workplaces promote a good work-life balance,” she added.

Berger was confident practical steps could be taken to move away from the stigma. She cited the decision by another MP who recently spoke out in parliament about their own experience of mental health problems, which was “very brave”. She said it was just one example of a number of people in the public eye recently feeling increasingly able to talk about mental health issues in a way that we never used to. “I think it is becoming part of our national conscience and I look forward to contributing to that in my role,” she said.

Charities’ response

Geoff Heyes, policy and campaigns manager at Mind
“We are really pleased to see the Labour Party showing such clear commitment to mental health. We don’t yet know what responsibilities the post will include, or whether the role will be solely about mental health, but we are very much encouraged to hear ‘mental health’ explicitly referenced while the shadow cabinet is being assembled. Mental health problems are very common and will affect one in four of us in the next year. Despite this, for decades mental health service provision has lagged far behind the standards of care we take for granted when it comes to our physical health. Parties are starting to understand that mental health is about much more than NHS service provision. It affects and is affected by all areas of our lives. We expect the new shadow minister to make sure that mental health is on everyone’s agenda, recognising the impact that all areas of public policy can have on everyone’s wellbeing. We look forward to working with Luciana Berger MP and her team in her new role.”

Marjorie Wallace, chief executive, Sane
“We hope that the role of shadow minister for mental health will help reverse the current worrying decline in mental health services available to people in crisis and in long-term need. Luciana already has experience in public health matters, and we hope that she will be able to bring this knowledge and experience to cabinet level. This will mean urgent investment in providing more crisis and inpatient care and community services, which are withering through a succession of cuts and closures.”

Stephen Delahunty

Photo: Emma Baum

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