Doubtless the Whitehall apparatchiks thought themselves terribly clever when they sold the Prime Minister the notion that using World Mental Health Day to launch the Government’s new mental health would be a brilliant PR coup.
Enter Jackie Doyle-Price, stage political right. A junior minister within the Department of Health, Mrs Doyle-Price is probably more celebrated for her apparently bottomless supply of hairstyles than for any great political achievement in her 8-year Parliamentary career to date.
Yet this week she finds herself paraded before the world as the UK’s dazzling solution to the problem of suicide. Sadly, though, our very first Minister for Suicide Prevention is unlikely to be the last participant in a very grand tradition of political tokenism and bureaucratic grandstanding.
Perhaps the sharpness of Mrs Doyle-Price’s haircuts is matched by her political acumen. She may be terribly good company at dinner parties, a raconteur of some repute over an amuse bouche or two, a selfless benefactor of good causes and a lover of defenceless animals.
What she most assuredly isn’t is the answer to the problem of suicide in your village, town or city.
I have found, over the years, that the sheer scale of the mental health crisis not just here, but across the world, is simply unquantifiable. No adjective yet exists to adequately describe the size of the problem this country faces in its ongoing provision of social and mental care. Choose any word you like – gargantuan, monstrous, enormous, huge, humongous, massive, colossal – and you’ll find it is a mere David to the Goliath that rains continuous blows upon a failing NHS system.
Equally indescribable is the amount of cold hard cash it will take to make even the smallest of dents in that problem.
The total Government annual spend is currently estimated at around £800bn (£772bn, if you want to be slightly more accurate). In the context of the true cost of treating mental health in the UK – as opposed to what the Government currently spends on it – that figure is chickenfeed.
To put it into some context, only a week or so ago the Health Secretary Matt Hancock was all over the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, like a well-cut but somewhat cheap overcoat, shouting about £20bn of new investment for the NHS. Money which, by the way, he intends to spend updating the service’s computers and reducing wait times for appointments.
So, when a junior Government minister is suddenly wheeled, wild-eyed and sporting a new haircut, into the limelight as the answer to all our prayers on suicide, you’ll forgive me when I ask just what Coco and his big-shoed friends in the dusty offices of Whitehall think the scale of the problem actually is.
Because if £20bn only allows one computer to talk to another, it doesn’t take membership of MENSA to work out that we’ll need a boatload more cash than that to even scratch the surface of the mental health issues that cause desperate people to take their own lives.
But I can hear you already. Oh Zoe, you’re saying, don’t be so negative! At least the Government has taken a positive step in the right direction.
Well yes, but only if the limit of one’s ambition stretches only as far as accepting that anything is better than nothing.
And by the way, just how positive is the appointment of a Minister for the Prevention of Suicide, anyway? No one will argue the fact that even one suicide is a tragedy, never mind more – and least of all me. But the fact is that 4,500 people committed suicide last year – and the rate actually falling.
So, it’s tempting, if possibly unfair, to conclude today’s news is a cynical attempt to make hay in the sunshine of World Mental Health Day and invest not very much in fighting a battle that statistics suggest is already being managed.
That doesn’t mean we don’t need to tackle the issue or that we should ignore the underlying causes – and in fact, this article argues for greater Government investment in that endeavour rather than less. But if you want only to further reduce the number of deaths by suicide, give the money to the Samaritans.
Jackie Doyle-Price was paid the thick end of £76,000 last year. The Samaritans could do quite a lot with that sort of money, I’d imagine.
More interesting, perhaps, is the question of why the Government has targeted the suicide rate specifically. It seems so incongruously arbitrary. Why not a Minister for the Prevention of Alzheimers Disease (850,000 UK sufferers), or depression (6 million), or anxiety (3 million), or eating disorders (1.6 million) or any number of other, serious mental health issues that affect huge tranches of the population on a daily basis?
Surely the Government is missing the point here and ignoring the apparently obvious fact that something has gone terribly wrong long before someone decides to end their own life. If we’re going to prevent someone’s suicide, surely to goodness we need to be intervening much earlier in that individual’s mental decline, don’t we?
We need to raise awareness of the issues that sit behind the needless end of a life: generations of stepped down trauma, childhood trauma and other hidden triggers that lead to mental health issues, anxiety, depression and addiction from which suicide eventually seems the only escape.
Which brings us back to the tricky subject of money. The reality is that this Government and its predecessors of various colours have been either unwilling or unable to invest the necessary cash to support intervention where it’s needed – on trauma awareness, rapid support and ongoing treatment. So, and as usual, it focuses on a sticking plaster solution.
Whichever way you look at it, one can’t help but feel this appointment has come in the backwash of a passing bandwagon, a sop to ease the growing clamour for a plan – any plan – to deal with the mounting social care crisis. Something sporting an interesting haircut and which a beleaguered Government can point to and say, look, we’re really doing something about mental health.
When really it’s doing anything at all.
The Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, recently quoted a figure of ‘£40bn and counting’ when asked the cost to date of Britain’s painfully drawn-out exit from Europe. Compare that figure to the £215m investment in school mental health support which Theresa May announced this time last year. The Government spent four times that amount just on libraries last year, for pity’s sake!
Are we really to believe that the Jackie Doyle-Price represents an administration which is serious about arresting the parlous decline of mental health in this country? Or should we succumb to the nagging suspicion that her unveiling is redolent of a government which lacks both wit and wisdom and is busy pulling up a chair in the fast-emptying Last Chance Saloon?
There is no easy solution to the mental health crisis and those answers that may be options come at an eyewatering price. We should all be thankful for the myriad free services that do their best to meet growing demand for mental health services. It’s invidious to name some and not others, but whether for addiction, PTSD, trauma, depression, anxiety, the volunteer-led recovery and support programmes that are there to catch people when they fall do more every day to address the issues than a Minister for Suicide Prevention can ever hope to achieve in a lifetime.
And if you’ve made the mistake of interpreting this as a denouncement of Jackie Doyle-Price’s integrity as a politician, it’s absolutely not. The chalice from which she has been encouraged to drink is unquestionably poisoned, but there is no reason to question her intentions.
What is in question is the integrity of a Government that plays fast and loose with such an emotionally raw subject as suicide by stooping to grubby PR stunts with no hope or intention of matching its words with the budget required to be true to them.