ALASTAIR CAMPBELL: Theresa May has walked away from her mental health promises
PUBLISHED: 00:01 24 March 2018
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Theresa May has achieved very little when it comes to mental health, the very issue she set out as a priority on the day she became PM writes ALASTAIR CAMPBELL
There are two changes visitors to Downing Street may have noticed since Theresa May took over.
First, the change of art in the main rooms. Gone is any hint of modernity, to be replaced in the main by lots of samey, gloomy portraits of samey, stuffy-looking figures of the past. The effect says museum, not working building at the heart of government. It underlines the sense that in so far as she has a vision, it is a backward-looking one.
Indeed, was not one of the most depressing things about the last election that it was a battle between two competing visions of the past, back to the 1950s with her or the 1970s with Jeremy Corbyn? And is not one of the most depressing things about the Brexit debate today that we are looking inward at a time the challenges of the world require us to look outward, and that those driving hardest for the hardest Brexit, Jacob Rees-Mogg chief among them, are literally seeking to recreate a rose-tinted vision of the past?
Second, in the little waiting room off the entrance lobby behind the famous black door, taking pride of place is a copy of the speech Mrs May delivered outside Number 10 after filling the vacancy left by David Cameron’s ill-fated – for him and country – referendum.
They are fine words. I said so at the time. I particularly welcomed her commitment to the most vulnerable, and her emphasis on the need to do more for mental health.
The problem is that seeing the words today merely serves to remind you how little has been achieved in pursuit of the noble goals she set out.
That much was brought home to me when speaking last week to a conference of primary school heads in Liverpool. They have never felt financial pressures quite as hard as they are feeling them now. You get the sense of people running to stand still, working flat out to deliver a basic service but without feeling they can really make the most of their own potential, which in turn makes it harder for them to realise the potential of their staff and the pupils in their care.
But there was another issue which kept coming up again and again, and confirmed to me in my view there is something very strange, and very worrying, going on with regard to the very issue Mrs May had set out as a priority on the day she became PM, namely mental health.
Given I spend a fair bit of my time campaigning on mental health as an ambassador for the Time to Change campaign, and given also that it was one of the issues I had been asked to speak about, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that it came up so often. After all, I had recently been at a similar heads’ conference not far away in East Lancashire, and heard much the same story. But they were secondary heads, and somehow I felt younger children would not be affected in quite the same way.
When I asked for a show of hands on the question of whether mental health issues, of children and of staff, were taking up a bigger share of their workload than five years ago, virtually every hand in the room was raised. Later, one of the heads told me she was only recently back at work having herself had a breakdown. Others talked of real struggles being faced by their staff amid, for many of them, something of a recruitment crisis. But it was the impact that the pressures of life were having on the mental well-being of really young children that was raised most of all.
A few days earlier, I had a bit of a barney with Piers Morgan, who suggested that it might be a direct consequence of the work I and others are doing on raising awareness about mental health that more and more young people are reporting as mental illness things that our generation would have just dealt with, and got on with life. I wish he was right. But when suicide has become the biggest killer of young men in Britain today, I think we are well beyond ‘man up, pull yourself together’ as the right approach.
And when primary school heads are united in saying this is a growing problem even among children aged four to 11, I am also not sure the usual middle-aged, middle-class explanation of the mental ill-health epidemic – ‘it’s all about social media’ – quite cuts it either. Something else is going on, that we have not even begun fully to understand.
Where Piers has half a point is that perhaps the awareness campaigns are making more people feel able to open up about mental health problems, but then they discover the services they need are not there. Heads spoke with something close to despair of trying to get professional psychological support for children who needed it, only to find it meant the best they could hope for was spending months on a waiting list, leaving the problem, often, for the school to solve.
Worse, I worry that politicians and policymakers are using the anti-stigma campaigns – which are having some success – as a substitute for the services they should be funding properly. They say the right things. But they have to do the right things too. I pointed out the pledge Mrs May made some months ago that within four years, she would guarantee that no child needing psychiatric help would have to travel long distances from home. Four years? Yet she reckons Brexit can be done in two?
Here we come to the crunch on this. It just is not a priority, no matter how often she or Jeremy Hunt say that it is. Priority, as I told the heads in Liverpool, means ‘more important than the others’. It is so easy to say the word. Hard to deliver on it. And the politicians are not.
This is the tragedy of Brexit. It is taking up all the energy, all the time, all the commitment of Parliament and of government. Other issues are sidelined, other challenges ignored and marginalised, the real interests and needs of the next generation overlooked. Then when something like the Russian poison attack comes up, the non-Brexit issues fall even lower down the agenda.
I left Liverpool feeling a bit down about it all, not least because I hadn’t felt able to answer their questions about how better to deal with the ever more complicated challenges they face. I could advise them only in very general terms about how to campaign, how to build and win an argument. But ultimately it is clear we need a much bigger approach, in terms of ambition and of funding, that can only come from government. And this government, be clear, has only one priority, Brexit, which on every analysis they have done is going to make us poorer as a country, and so make the lives of headteachers harder still.
On the train south, a nurse taking her daughter and her friends to the Move It Dance Festival at the Excel Centre, sat down for a chat, and told me in her long years in nursing, the only time she actually felt improvement in their ability to deliver a better service, and do a better job, was when New Labour was in power. Spending on schools and hospitals was a ‘priority’, you see... The fact she wanted to stop and say thanks, and ask me to pass on thanks to Tony Blair, lifted me, momentarily. But then it cast me down again. Because it is so blindingly obvious that is the approach our schools and hospitals needed again, and equally blindingly obvious that with austerity followed by Brexit, it is not coming for a long, long time.
Madness. And could the media please stop saying schools and hospitals are ‘in deficit,’ when what we mean is ‘underfunded’?