Georgia Preece, Research Assistant, Money and Mental Health
Questions remain about government plans for mental health and preventing suicide
31 March 2021
Last week, the government released three significant announcements that will shape its action on mental health in the years ahead: the COVID-19 mental health and wellbeing recovery action plan, the launch of the new Office for Health Promotion, and a fifth report on progress against the National Suicide Prevention Strategy.
The reports showed that the target of reducing suicides by 10% hasn’t been met, and certain risk factors for suicidality have also increased. It seems that there was a significant need for new thinking around reducing suicidality as well as a new approach to mental health, outlined in the COVID-19 recovery plan.
The link between financial problems and suicide
Across the announcements and reports, there was welcome acknowledgement of the link between economic factors and both mental health problems and suicidality, and the impact of the pandemic in exacerbating both mental health problems and these risk factors. This is encouraging as it has often been overlooked, but our research (which helped to shape and inform the work) has shown that finances and mental health are deeply linked.
The recovery plan looked at strategies for different risk factors and announced the exploration of a potential policy tool that would allow the mental health impact of policies to be understood. This would be an innovative move towards policy making. The opportunity to understand how a policy will impact on mental health before it is implemented is a huge shift in direction for the government.
In the National Suicide Prevention Strategy, the following changes were announced:
- A move to improve the links between money advice and social prescribing and psychological services. It includes providing debt advice to those that are receiving IAPT services, to ensure that those who are accessing mental health support can also obtain money advice. NHS England, NHS Improvement and the Money and Pensions Service will also collaborate to provide money and debt resources to social prescribing link workers
- This summer, there will also be a review of the evidence of public health harms of gambling. Much of Money and Mental Health’s work centres around online harms and gambling, and you can read more about that here
- The ‘Stop the Debt threats’ campaign, which came into legislature in December, will be fully implemented by June, when all lenders will need to comply. Money and Mental Health’s research and campaign had a direct impact on this, and it’s encouraging to see the significance in government strategy.
Considering the joint emphasis in both the COVID-19 recovery plan and the National Suicide Prevention Strategy on economic factors and the impact of income on mental health problems, it was disappointing that the recovery plan didn’t include any mention of benefits or sick pay. For example, this could have included the £20 Universal Credit uplift which is due to expire in the autumn and those on ‘legacy’ benefits who have not had an increase in their payments. It seems as though any acknowledgement of financial difficulty and economic problems is incomplete without also acknowledging the benefits system.
It was also noticeable that online scams were absent across the reports, despite our research showing that common symptoms of mental health problems make it harder to identify and avoid online scams, and this has only been exacerbated by lockdown.
The Office for Health Promotion
In recent months there have been questions over the fate of public health approaches to mental health. Since the government announced it was scrapping Public Health England (PHE) — with much of the discussion on that decision relating to the direct efforts to control the pandemic — it has been unclear until now what consideration would be given to mental health.
The new Office for Health Promotion will be taking on the public health “levelling up” agenda, and will focus on preventable risk factors of ill health and mortality. One of its focuses is mental health, and it will be looking at the role of wider social determinants on mental health problems. Unlike PHE, it will sit in the Department of Health and Social Care. While that means that the new office will not be as independent as PHE once was, hopefully it will ensure that mental health is seen as a central priority and contribute to further work that can tackle the link between money and mental health as part of that.
Overall, the announcements signal some encouraging signs to mental health strategy reform and increasing visibility of mental health at a national level. Important questions still remain, and I would welcome further inclusion on benefits and online scams, as well as further commitment to the proposed policy tool.