Prioritising mental health

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Good mental health isn’t just the absence of mental illness. It’s about how we cope with our lives – how we handle situations, relate to others and make choices. Mental health cannot be separated from our physical health; it’s a fundamental part of our overall wellbeing.

Poor physical health can lead to an increased risk of developing mental health problems. Similarly, poor mental health can negatively impact on physical health; we know, for example, that people with mental illness are three times more likely to develop diabetes and twice as likely to die from heart disease. 

Parity of esteem 

Physical and mental health services in England are not currently organised in a way that supports an integrated response to both the mental and physical health care needs of patients. In a report in 2012 – Long-term conditions and mental health – The King’s Fund argued that the institutional and professional separation of mental and physical health care leads to fragmented approaches in which opportunities to improve care are often missed.

Since then, the importance of valuing mental health equally with physical health has become more widely recognised: there is now a new legal responsibility for the NHS to deliver ‘parity of esteem’ between mental and physical health, which the government has pledged to achieve by 2020; and an increased openness from many in the public eye about their own mental health conditions have both played a part in raising the profile of mental health but there remains more to do.

Joining the dots

Helen Gilburt, Fellow in Health Policy at The King’s Fund, is working on a number of projects that focus on mental health. The most recent of these is an animation that follows three fictional characters – Asif, Alicia and Mary – as they access support for mental health problems, highlighting the range of different services provided by the NHS, local authorities, and the voluntary and private sectors.

Watch the animation

‘The animation provides an introduction to what constitutes mental health and mental health care,’ explains Helen. ‘It encourages people to join the dots across the boundaries. Just as your mental health is part of your overall health, mental health care is an aspect of care that should be considered across all health and care services – from GPs to hospitals, community services to care homes. I hope that the animation will help people to realise that mental health includes a wide range of conditions and that good mental health care is about everyone working in health and social care considering the holistic needs of individuals and those involved in their care.’

The animation builds of the success of An alternative guide to the NHS in England, which has now been viewed more than 200,000 times. ‘Our audiences welcomed the simplicity of the guide to the NHS,’ says Helen. ‘We wanted to replicate that with this new animation, giving a broad audience an easy way to understand mental health and mental health services, and prompting them to think about the impact of this on patients and service users.’

Future resources 

The animation is part of a broad programme of work focused on mental health. Helen is working on a mental health briefing paper due to be published later this year. ‘The pressures on the health system are well documented, with those in mental health services receiving particular focus in recent times. The briefing will bring together data with wider intelligence to examine what is happening in mental health services.’

Chris Naylor, Senior Fellow at the Fund, is working on a follow up to Long-term conditions and mental health, which demonstrated there are strong financial arguments for creating more integrated approaches. The follow-up report will look at a range of case studies seeking to do this, as well examining what integrated care looks like from a service user and carer perspective.

The Fund’s mental health conference in September focused on progress to implement the new waiting time targets in 2016, as well as developments in primary care and acute hospitals in delivering integrated mental health care. This will be followed by a conference in October looking at children and young people’s mental health, which is being run in partnership with national mental health charity Young Minds.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2015/16 issue of Insight.