Today I want to talk about something which I know will be of huge personal importance to many readers – mental health.
Many people reading this will either have direct experience of mental health issues themselves, or have someone close to them who has.
Frankly it’s something that we as a society still don’t talk about enough, and it’s fair to say that governments historically haven’t always given mental health the same emphasis as they do physical health.
But that’s changing for the better - and the Scottish Government has just published a new ten-year strategy to bring about ambitious improvements in our nation’s mental health.
I’ll explain more in a minute about what this strategy contains, but first it’s worth reminding ourselves why this is so important.
One in four of us will be affected by mental illness during our lifetimes – it can affect anyone, of any age, in any circumstances.
It’s estimated that mental ill-health can cut up to 20 years off a person’s life expectancy.
And around two out of every three people who would benefit from treatment for mental ill-health are currently missing out.
On the positive side, there has been a huge increase in awareness in recent years of mental health issues.
Although more needs to be done, a lot of the stigma around mental health that I remember when I was growing up has thankfully disappeared.
A number of public figures have bravely spoken publicly about their own experiences in battling mental health issues, helping to assure people – particularly young people – that they’re not alone.
And in my time in politics, there has been a real step-change among politicians of all parties in giving this issue the attention it deserves.
In government, the SNP has been increasing investment in mental health – and it will top £1 billion this year for the first time.
We have the UK’s only dedicated Minister for Mental Health, Maureen Watt, and we were the first government in the UK to have set a waiting time target for mental health, as we do with physical health.
Over the last decade, the number of people working in child and adolescent mental health services has increased by almost 50 per cent.
But clearly we need to go further.
More and more people are now coming forward to seek treatment for mental health issues. That’s a welcome development, but it does of course mean that we have to ensure our public services are equipped to deal with increased demand.
So our new ten-year strategy includes 40 different actions that will help us on that journey – based around improving access to services and supporting earlier intervention.
As you’d expect with an issue as complex as mental health, they cover a wide range of areas, such as the education system, our health service, our criminal justice system and social security.
We want people to have access to help as early as possible, hopefully preventing their illness from becoming more serious.
For instance, we’ll make sure that there are appropriately trained people in places which we know are often the frontline for mental health – such as GP surgeries, Accident and Emergency units, prisons and police cells.
We’ll increase the mental health workforce to ensure that there is access to a dedicated mental health professional in all of our A&E departments 24 hours a day, in all of our GP practices, in every custody suite in every police station, and in every prison.
That means employing an extra 800 mental health workers right across Scotland.
There will also be a big push to improve mental health among our young people.
Schools are one of the key places where young people can get access to care and support –so we’re going to commission a review of Personal and Social Education, counselling and pastoral guidance to ensure every child gets appropriate support.
While we were developing this strategy, we heard a lot about young people being referred for mental health treatment but being rejected.
Clearly these services won’t be the right route for some young people – and it’s always ultimately a clinical decision - but we agree it’s important to fully understand the issue of rejections. We will therefore carry out an audit of rejected referrals – something which many parents and charities have been asking for.
All of this is backed up by significant financial investment. We’ve committed £35 million to increase the mental health workforce on top of an additional £150 million over five years announced in 2016 for improvement and innovation. Going forward, an increasing share of the overall Health budget will be directed at mental health.
We’ll also keep this strategy under regular review, bringing together expert opinion twice a year to make sure we’re still on the right track.
I don’t pretend that we will solve all of these issues overnight – or even over the next ten years.
But I do want us to be able to look back and say that we set in motion a transformational change in Scotland’s mental health.
This article originally appeared in the Evening Times.