Closing the 'prevention gap' at the party conferences

Ella Rhodes reports on the latest policy work from the British Psychological Society.

The prevention of mental health problems has become a focus for government, illustrated by the publication of its recent green paper and the NHS Long Term Plan. Given that one in eight children and young people have a diagnosable mental health condition, this has also been an increasing focus of UK public policy in recent years.

In June, then-Prime Minister Theresa May announced that every new teacher in England would be trained to spot early signs of mental illness in pupils, while the NHS Long Term Plan outlined aims to embed mental health teams in schools and to increase the use of ‘social prescribing’. More recently, in its green paper on prevention, the government laid out its aims to close the ‘prevention gap’ – putting the prevention of mental health on an equal footing with preventing physical illness.

While prevention covers a wide range of issues, the British Psychological Society is seizing this opportunity to raise its own work in this area as well as its more focused policy campaign on children and young people’s mental health. At both Labour and Conservative party conferences, the Society will host events where panels of MPs, psychology and policy experts will be asked how we can support the mental wellbeing of children in schools.

At the Labour event in Brighton BPS Director of Policy Kathryn Scott will be joined by MPs Bambos Charalambous (Enfield and Southgate), Emma Hardy (Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle) and Julie Cooper (Burnley) Shadow Minister for Community Health. Also featuring on the panel will be Tom Milson, Founding Headteacher of the Eagle House School, Dr Nihara Krause, a Consultant Clinical Psychologist and CEO of stem4, and Emily Dobson, Policy and Parliamentary Officer for YoungMinds.

Scott said: ‘Given that 93 per cent of teachers agree that the current education system places a greater focus on academic performance than the wellbeing of children and young people, the time is right… there are many opportunities for policymakers and practitioners alike to press for real change for children and young people. The BPS has done substantial work on the subject through this year’s Children and Young People Campaign.’

Some of Dobson’s recent work with YoungMinds has involved a focus on prevention and early intervention. In a recent survey of 7000 young people the charity found that 77 per cent felt that pressure at school was impacting on their mental health. Through its Wise Up campaign, YoungMinds has been calling for wellbeing in schools to be at least as highly valued as academic performance.

Dobson said, to this end, it is important for schools to adopt a whole-school approach to student wellbeing – rather than it being a single person’s responsibility or delivered through a single lesson in school. However, she added that schools cannot address all factors which can lead to poor mental health – including poverty, discrimination and family issues. ‘Our Act Early campaign is calling on the Government to commit to a brave new integrated approach to prevent the development and escalation of mental health problems by introducing a cross-Government strategy on children and young people’s mental health. This will bring together all departments, from education to housing, to act on the principles of prevention and early intervention throughout every aspect of care to reduce the demand on specialist NHS services.’

The Conservative Party Conference panel in Manchester will also feature Scott and Krause along with Marc Bush, Director of Evidence and Policy for YoungMinds, Cllr Ian Hudspeth, Chairman, LGA Community Wellbeing Board, and Neil Carmichael, Senior Advisor at PLMR. Prior to joining PLMR, Neil was the Conservative Member of Parliament for Stroud from 2010 to 2017 and acted as chair of the Education Select Committee.

Krause said she believed it was important to support governments to adopt mental health polices and integrate these into public health policy and social care policy. ‘Since mental health has parity with physical health, focus and funding should be equal, especially since mental ill health cause heavy burden on societies. I think it’s important for policymakers to be informed of evidence-based practice and research, to get their attention and influence legislation. I feel the society has an important role in providing a combination of clinical, educational, research and policy based views and I am proud to be included in supporting the society and joining my colleague in voicing concerns as well as solutions at the conferences.’

Another BPS-organised event at the Conservative conference will involve a timely discussion on the psychology of democracy featuring the Society’s Chief Executive Sarb Bajwa, MP for Gloucester and Chair of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, Richard Graham, Economist and former Joint Head of the UK Government Economics Service Vicky Pryce, Psychology Lecturer (University of Salford) Dr Ashley Weinberg, and Dr Hannah White, Deputy Director of the Institute for Government.

Scott said that interventions rely on a democracy that ‘remains fit for purpose’, often failing when they do not connect with those they’re meant to serve. ‘This can be linked to an inherent flaw within the design of the policy itself, a lack of understanding of the environmental, social and financial contexts or the failure of including the very people affected by these political decisions. This can in turn lead to feelings of inequality, disenfranchisement, stigma and populism. Understanding people, how they work, and what pressures they live with, is therefore of paramount importance… The Society is proud to be a part of this conversation.’

The policy team’s presence at party conference is likely to continue expanding in years to come, as the Society continues to take psychological evidence into the heart of government in order to secure lasting change in public policy. ‘Bringing together two strands of our work – children and young people’s mental health, and prevention – is an unparalleled opportunity to highlight the expertise of psychologists and the value of the wider discipline to policy-makers and elected officials,’ Scott added.

The Society’s Senate, made up of chairs of each of the Society’s member networks, is voting on its policy priority for the year this month. On the table alongside prevention are age inequality and wellbeing in later life, and ‘from poverty to flourishing’. The Society is also calling for contributors to its response to the prevention green paper. The deadline is 26 September.

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