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Mental Health doesn't get the attention it deserves

February 6, 2014 3:19 PM
Originally published by UK Liberal Democrats

Interview with Norman Lamb MP, the Lib Dem health minister.

It's like the wind; you can't see it with the naked eye, but you can see its damaging effects when something goes wrong. But Norman Lamb, Minister of State for Care and Support, is determined to give mental health better resources and publicity.

"Mental health doesn't get the attention it deserves because of the stigma. But one in four of us will suffer a mental health issue at some stage in our lives, so it touches every family," says Lamb. He also says there is an institutional bias against mental health: "The NHS hasn't treated it as seriously as physical health. When the Government set the access standard that you must get treated within 18 weeks of a doctor's referral, mental health was left out. And yet we know that it has a massive impact on people's lives."

As the minister responsible for mental health, Lamb is keen to improve standards, and frequently mentions his sense of urgency towards improving people's lives. He has hurried to meet me in his ministerial office in Parliament, which is sparingly furnished, his desk adorned only with papers on health policy and reports on elderly care.He says such goals have political implications and that Labour will attack the Coalition Government if it does not meet these targets. "The Labour government rightly saw long waiting times as something that had to be tackled, but no one really thought about mental health. It's 'out of sight, out of mind'. You don't have the same strength of campaigning for mental health as you have for cancer treatment, so there isn't the same public pressure."

Norman Lamb mental health

"We need to have access standards in mental health as well as physical health. That's one of the things I'm fighting for.

Because we know that early intervention in mental health, getting seen quickly and having effective therapy - we know that that has a big effect on slowing down the deterioration or even stopping it, yet people are often left waiting far too long."

In the new NHS Mandate [a mandate from the Government to the NHS commissioning board], mental health has been given a much higher priority than it used to have. "That's a result of Lib Dems in Government," says Lamb.

Children's mental health needs special attention, he argues, because of its impact on educational attainment. "There should be a much closer collaboration between mental health services and schools. Teachers need to understand what they're looking for, and ensure that children who need support get it." With a £50m investment in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services [CAMHS], Lamb aims to improve the quality of provision, which he says at the moment is "horribly variable."

"I'm not satisfied that we're covering two thirds of the country - we can't leave a third of people behind." By putting in this extra money, work with young people can be more focused on what works. "That will have a massive impact on their life chances," says Lamb, "If you nip problems in the bud, then the chances of making progress in adulthood are greater."

While his portfolio is challenging, Lamb says that the "relationship of trust" within the Department of Health makes life easier: "I'm acutely aware that some other departments are different. But in the Department of Health, Jeremy Hunt hasn't stopped me doing anything. He allows me to pursue the things that I'm passionate about." Lamb is proud to put a distinctly Liberal Democrat stamp on the treatment of people by the health service: "By giving power to people receiving care and shifting from a completely paternalistic system where you get "done to" to a system where the individual is in charge, you give power to individuals. This is a central Liberal concept."

Lamb wants more local authorities to make personal health budgets for people with long-term conditions and disabilities a priority. "I'm determined to ensure that people are treated as citizens, that what's important to them is what counts rather than the institution." Patients will shortly have a right to request a personal health budget, but Lamb is trying to ensure that this will eventually become a 'right to have' treatment. For those without the capacity to plan their own care, families will be able to get involved too. Combined with integrated care, particularly in health and social care, Lamb plans to reduce unnecessary hospital admissions. "At the moment we have this horrible sense of fragmentation that you can fall through the gaps - you get referred from one institution to another, no one picks you up, you might be left waiting far too long for the next thing to happen to you. When dealing with frail, elderly people, we've got to shift towards a joined up service that meets their needs."

Lamb admits to finding life in Government a huge challenge in terms of time and commitment, but one he relishes and works hard to meet seven days a week. "You have to give body and soul to it. To be an effective minister, you have to give it everything while you have the chance."

Life in Westminster can indeed be hectic, occasionally leading to mix-ups. "On a particularly busy day, I rushed from Parliament to Millbank - straight from giving a speech - to be interviewed on the BBC News Channel on standards in homecare following a report from the Care Quality Commission. I got there with seconds to spare. I went straight in and started being asked about horse meat (which had been the subject of the previous item). They then asked another and another question. The whole interview ended up being on horse meat, which is not part of my portfolio. Thankfully, I avoided making any commitments that would get me into trouble!"

Despite rarely taking a whole day off work, Lamb insists he is looking after his own health too. He stopped smoking when he became a health minister a year ago and cycles regularly. In his rare downtime he listens to music (from Jay-Z to Mozart) and attends football matches. Like Ed Balls, Lamb is a Norwich City season ticket holder, and the two regularly compare notes on their team. "It's the one thing we have in common," he says.

Before he rushes away for a vote in the House of Commons, Lamb reflects on his purpose: "I don't want to do this job just to tick a box to say I've been a minister. I'm a bit obsessive I suppose, in being completely driven by making a difference on the things that I care about, in mental health and elderly care, and learning disabilities. Responding properly to the Winterbourne View scandal, end of life care, the Liverpool Care Pathway - these are big, emotive issues and I realise that they are of immense importance to ordinary people. So if I can improve standards of care for people, and improve their experience of how the system works, it's worth doing."

And with that, Norman Lamb is gone again, racing off through the corridors of Parliament - a minister on a mission.