Is this Tory mental health proposal going to help?
The Conservative Party election manifesto includes a commitment to amend health and safety regulations, and many readers will be surprised and delighted to learn that, on this occasion, they are not proposing to reduce levels of protection.
In fact, what the manifesto says is:
“We will amend health and safety regulations so that employers provide appropriate first aid training and needs assessment for mental health, as they currently do for risks to physical health.”
Teresa May had already said on 7th May that larger organisations would be required to provide mental health first aid, so this is not necessarily new, although it is the first time they have mentioned changing the regulations.
Mental health in the workplace is an important issue for trade unions and the TUC have produced a workbook for representatives to explain what they can do to support those in the workplace with mental health problems.
Also the mental health first aid that the Conservatives are promoting is not new, it has been around for over 10 years and the Department of Health has encouraged employers to provide it since 2012. It teaches people how to identify, understand and help a person who may be developing a mental health issue. It teaches people how to recognise the crucial warning signs of mental ill health. It also includes how to provide help on a first aid basis and effectively guide someone towards the right support services.
There are already over 100,000 people who are trained in mental health first aid and there is evidence that they have improved knowledge, confidence, attitudes and helping behaviour. What I have not yet seen is evidence of what difference the first aiders are making, but anything which promotes awareness of mental health issues and which helps provide support must be welcomed.
But there are two things wrong with what the Conservatives are proposing. The first is that mental health services in many areas have been consistently slashed over the last seven years with a lot of local mental health budgets being raided for other purposes, yet the manifesto is offering no new funding. This means that there are often no suitable support services available for mental health first aiders to point workers towards.
Secondly, they are saying nothing about prevention. Now not all mental health problems are preventable, but the most common, depression and anxiety, often can be. Especially when it is caused by work. The latest HSE statistics say that half a million people are suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety. That is a huge number of people, and these cases could have been prevented if employers had addressed the underlying issue, which is the stress that people are put under.
For years the trade unions have been saying that we need simple clear regulations on stress so that employers know what they have to do and enforcement agencies can ensure they are doing it. Yet successive governments have refused to act.
Instead employers are increasingly investing in training for workers about how they can manage stress which throws the problem on to the worker and sees it as their responsibility. At the same time many people in the workplace who do develop mental health problems such as stress and anxiety are often being fobbed off with a referral to do some online Cognitive Behavioural Therapy rather than being given access to properly trained occupational health or mental health specialists.
Many employers will embrace the concept of mental health first aiders (which unions will welcome), but they are not a response to workplace stress.
If the Government really wants to help then give us legal protection from one of the main causes of mental health disorders – stress, and at the same time put some new ring-fenced money into improving early access to NHS mental health services.