Policy must tackle root causes of England’s record mental ill-health, says report

<span>Photograph: Jeff Morgan 12/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Jeff Morgan 12/Alamy

Ministers must tackle poverty, poor housing and air pollution to improve England’s worsening mental health, a coalition of charities, thinktanks and staff groups has urged ministers.

Their blueprint for better mental health also includes a crackdown on racism, reforms to the benefits system and action to end the stark inequality whereby people with severe psychiatric conditions die up to 20 years sooner than the general population.

Their ideas are contained in a report, published on Wednesday by the Centre for Mental Health, that draws on policy proposals put forward by 35 key organisations.

They include the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the counselling service Place2Be and children’s charities including the Children’s Society.

Related: Millions of UK parents struggle with mental health, survey suggests

Sustained action is needed because Covid-19, austerity and the cost of living crisis have led to a rise in recent years in the numbers of people in England suffering mental ill-health, the coalition says.

“An unprecedented number of people are struggling with their mental health, and support services in England are on their knees,” said Dr Sarah Hughes, Mind’s chief executive. “Record numbers of people are waiting for the treatment they need.”

The report warns ministers that the increased number of people struggling with their mental health – 8.2 million live with at least one condition such as anxiety or depression – is causing “preventable misery, death, demand on stretched services, lost economic productivity and costs of tens of billions of pounds”.

It sets out other measures that should be included in a 10-year plan to improve mental heath. They include:

  • A new Child Poverty Act to banish child poverty by 2030.

  • The creation of a minimum income guarantee and reforming sick pay.

  • Action against junk food, smoking, alcohol and gambling.

  • The end of “hostile environment” immigration policies.

In April last year the health secretary, Steve Barclay, called for evidence to help guide the development of what he said would be a 10-year “health and wellbeing plan”, as well as a separate suicide prevention plan. However, in January this year the former was scrapped and instead subsumed into a much wider-ranging major conditions strategy, which is still being developed and also covers cancer, heart disease and other major killers.

A future government should start applying a “mental health test” to every policy it plans to implement, to ensure that it helps tackle mental ill-health, the 35 groups add.

Sean Duggan, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation’s mental health network of specialist NHS trusts, said the NHS must respond to the growing need for care and “transform mental health services for people of all ages and backgrounds”, including through new access targets.

But, stressing the importance of tackling the social determinants of ill-health, he added: “By reducing the number of people developing mental health issues in the first place we can ensure those who require help receive the mental health support they need. On the flip side, a continued lack of investment in mental health services means a crisis for the whole NHS.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We’re going further and faster to transform our country’s mental health services, with up to an additional £2.3bn being invested annually until 2024 to expand services, so an extra 2 million people can get the support they need.”

The major conditions strategy will be “informed” by evidence submitted by mental health organisations last year for the now-scrapped dedicated strategy, they added.