My Lords, I, too, welcome the opportunity to take part tonight. I refer noble Lords to my interest as leader of North Lincolnshire Council, which is set out in the register. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, for tabling this Question. We all want to highlight the importance of the very real issue of parity between mental and physical health. Unfortunately, in the past mental illness has been classed as a Cinderella service which has been underfunded and not meaningfully discussed for decades, so I welcome the Government’s intervention with an additional £1 billion per year in real terms by 2021. I fervently hope to see a more collaborative approach to parity of mental and physical health.
I was personally involved as a guardian to a young person who suffered from schizophrenia. I tried to support him to live independently in his community. Sadly, he died prematurely. A concern was how people related to him. It was at many times challenging for him, and for others. People’s fixed views were not always encouraging. Access to services could be difficult at times. Barriers are beginning to be dismantled, particularly the general public’s attitude. Overcoming stigma and discrimination is supporting this approach. Celebrities, politicians, sports stars and a whole army of campaigners and activists are now speaking openly and calling for better treatment, culminating in a desire massively to improve this service.
We have one life, so when we read statistics showing that people who suffer severe mental illness die on average 15 to 20 years earlier than the general population because of poor physical health, quite rightly there should be a call to do something—a call to action. We need a first-class delivery vehicle equipping, upskilling and increasing our mental health workforce. It is critical that we get it right in terms of numbers, skill mix and appropriate training to see service improvement and to support those professions. It is also important to have written care plans assessed annually with input from carers and supporting organisations. Care plans should include priorities of public health and concerns such as tobacco, alcohol and obesity. We know that poor mental health is associated with higher rates of smoking and, in particular, with substance misuse problems.
I particularly highlight prisoners in our criminal justice system. After they have entered prison, large numbers of men and women are diagnosed with a diagnosable mental health problem. From the viewpoint of those facing long sentences, their life has fallen apart. When those men and women leave the criminal justice system a direct referral to the NHS would help and should be offered. Not everyone leaving prison will choose that option, because of their distrust of professionals; nevertheless, the opportunity should be available. Bridging the gap at that point would allow other organisations, including local government, to take part as part of a prevention agenda, in particular helping with housing and signposting other services. As we know, good-quality housing is important to give not just comfort but stability and focus for people suffering from mental health issues.
I mentioned stability, and a place. We all need a place—a home to connect to a community—to belong to a community, which can contribute to a person’s well-being. There is also a need for a really good work programme, which will forge and enhance esteem. Mental health problems are one of the most significant barriers preventing people on benefits from taking up employment, so there is a need to look at how the benefits system supports them and to focus more on improving mental health—a new, integrated approach between work and health. As we all know, it is okay getting that job, but this is about keeping it, because we know it benefits people’s health and mental health. Building relationships and making new friends offers an opportunity to address loneliness and could help bring down those high rates of suicide, which remains the biggest killer of men under 45. All this comes into the equation for a better life chance for people suffering from some form of mental illness.
In the time allocated, I have focused on a particular age group and section of our population, but with mental health issues affecting all ages, from our younger generation to our older generation, we need to make a real difference and really push this. I hope that with the Government’s budget increase we will see a difference. I see a change happening and, building on that premise, we can pledge our support for more prevention. With this timely debate tonight, we are responding to and highlighting the very real and personal issues affecting mental illness and offering support for parity of esteem for mental and physical health for all. I very much welcome this debate tonight.