Men's Health

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:15 am on 28th June 2006.

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Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton The Minister of State, Department of Health 11:15 am, 28th June 2006

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend Dr. Stoate on securing this extremely important debate and on all the work he has done with the all-party group on men's health. It is vital to use whatever platform we can to raise these sensitive issues with the wider public and in Parliament.

My hon. Friend is right to say that there is increasing focus, certainly in Government, on well-being and mental health. If we are to tackle some of the basic problems, it is important to consider how mental health issues can affect different parts of society. We have talked about issues in men's mental health, but as my hon. Friend said, there are additional mental health issues in respect of people from black and minority ethnic communities.

If we are to tackle the overall issues in dealing with mental health problems and mental well-being, it is vital to ask why certain groups suffer disproportionately and why some people do not come forward and access services. I was pleased that there was a national men's health week and that the Men's Health Forum put together a conference on mental health where the "Brain Manual" was launched. I am delighted that the Department was able to support it. I spoke at the conference and I was incredibly impressed by people's commitment and dedication in raising the issue, and I asked for feedback from the conference.

We want to look in even more detail at other comments, but one issue, especially, that was raised was that of opening hours for GPs' surgeries, as men find it difficult to take time off work to go to the GP. We must ask whether there is a barrier at that first stage and find out how to make it easier for people to gain access to health care services.

My hon. Friend set out some of the very real challenges in men's mental health and drew attention to some shocking statistics: three-quarters of those who kill themselves are men; 73 per cent. of adults who go missing are men. Too high a proportion of men suffer from mental health problems, and instead of seeking help they are more likely to turn to drugs, alcohol and smoking to try to alleviate those problems.

It is important to raise awareness of men's mental health problems and to have programmes to tackle in a broader sense some of the stigma and discrimination that goes with mental health in general, but especially in men who perhaps feel that they have some kind of weakness that cannot be talked about. How do we overcome that and say, "No, this is a common health problem that we need to be open about"? People should not feel stigmatised if they have to seek help.

As my hon. Friend said, we must assist men to acknowledge mental health problems and encourage them to seek help and support. The conference had the support of the Football Association, which appointed Tony Adams as its ambassador with specific responsibility for mental health. That will promote mental health issues positively. Too often, coverage of such issues is completely negative. We have to talk about the positive aspects of the services available and the advantages of coming forward and, with the Football Association, emphasise the importance of physical exercise in helping mental health problems, and in particular reducing the stress that my hon. Friend talked about.

The Department has set up the shift programme to help to tackle the way in which the media and the wider public approach and perceive mental health issues. It is heartbreaking sometimes to see how the media deal with some of these issues. Sometimes they do so in a deeply unsympathetic way. We have to bring home to people the fact that mental health problems are a common health problem and it is important that they are approached constructively and positively. We also want to develop an anti-stigma code that can be adopted by employers.

Creating an understanding of mental health issues and promoting mental well-being are vital. As my hon. Friend said, the Men's Health Forum's policy report considered six aspects of that. It may be common sense, but mental health promotion strategies need to address the aspects of life that impact most on how people feel about themselves, including those that my hon. Friend talked about, such as bullying, homophobia, racial discrimination, family conflict, employment and feeling isolated. We need good partnership working at national and local level to tackle some of these issues. This relates to the whole public health agenda. We are bringing together at local level—through, for example, local area agreements—local government, health care, trusts, voluntary organisations and Jobcentre Plus to consider what all the aspects of an individual's life are and what impact those are likely to have on their mental health.

My Department is working closely with the Department for Work and Pensions and the Health and Safety Executive on our health, work and well-being strategy. The aim is to get employers engaged in the debate and considering what they provide and what support they give. How can we ensure that Jobcentre Plus is working closely with employers? This is not only about helping people to remain in work. Too often, people feel that they cannot go to work because of the stigma and discrimination and because others do not understand how to deal with the issue. Managers and work colleagues are frightened of it. How do we say, "No, that is the wrong approach"? I have seen many good examples. My hon. Friend mentioned Royal Mail, and BT is another good example of a company where I have seen good support given to people. It is not just about helping people back into work, but about helping people to remain in work.

My hon. Friend is right to talk about giving men control of their own health. That is what the direction that we take in the White Paper towards the individualised care approach is about. How do we ensure that care is more convenient for people, that it is closer to their homes? We are talking about more choice and information, and simple positive steps that people can take to improve their own well-being. He is right to say that that is one of the keys, particularly when it comes to mental health issues.

My hon. Friend talked about problems, particularly in the BME communities. This year, we conducted the count me in census. We asked people to consider in particular racial background in mental health in-patient care. That means that we now have a baseline whereby we can measure progress, which we have set out through the delivering race equality programme. I believe that that will make a real difference, particularly in terms of reaching out to BME communities.

As my hon. Friend said, it is important that we understand the reasons behind some of the statistics that we have discussed today. The overall suicide rate is now at its lowest recorded level, but until recently the suicide rate among young adult males had been rising. The death rate in this group is still far too high and is much higher than in the general population. We have introduced measures through our national suicide prevention strategy that are starting to have an impact, but we certainly need to redouble our efforts in that direction to ensure that we encourage young men to look after their mental well-being and, crucially, to seek help when they need it. We need to understand the reasons why men are unwilling to engage with services and to admit problems, and we need to devise policies to tackle them.

My hon. Friend mentioned some of the risk factors associated with young men. They include psychological factors such as depression, low self-esteem, and substance misuse, as well as social factors such as unemployment and family problems, but when we began to develop our suicide prevention strategy, there was little evidence about what works in promoting good mental health with young men. We wanted to find out why men find it more difficult to talk about their problems, why they are more likely to resist health promotion messages, and why they are reluctant to ask for help when they are in distress.

That will become even more important as we consider how to expand some of our programmes. My hon. Friend mentioned Richard Layard's work. In our manifesto and in the White Paper we said that we would extend access to psychological therapies. That is vital and is something that might help men who are reluctant to come forward. We need to get behind those issues and to extend our programme of psychological therapies.

That is why at the conference it was pleasing to be able to launch the evaluation report of the reaching out pilot scheme, which examined how we can encourage young men to seek help earlier and identify some of the barriers that discourage them from seeking it. The evaluation report set out the lessons learned by those pilots. One lesson was that involving service users in designing the care required is vital. Yes, this is a message that goes across all the health care services. It was particularly important in this area. Young men responded much more positively if we talked about mental well-being as opposed to mental health problems. That is an interesting lesson. All the evidence will help local providers to improve the way in which they engage young men and develop their services.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, it is vital that local organisations think about this, as they will have a duty under the Equality Act 2006 to tackle these issues. We need to lead this from the centre and to ensure that the message is going out loud and clear. I hope that we will continue to work with the all-party group on men's health, the Men's Health Forum and all the other organisations that are contributing to building the momentum around this area. I hope that we will be able to work closely together. Frankly, if we can engage in such partnership at national and local level we can do a lot to improve men's mental health, which is vital to the future of our society.