Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
Dr Alex George is many things: A&E Doctor, former Love Island contestant, influencer, the list goes on. He has now added the title of government mental health ambassador to this list. But what he is not is a solution to mental healthcare.
As a society, we spend an increasing amount of time raising awareness about mental health issues. However, what’s missing is a policy response, which is a shame considering that a policy response to societal problems is what we expect of government. Hiring and promoting influencers to highlight a particular topic is not a substitute for material efforts to resolve it.
Before I continue, I want to be clear about a couple of things. Awareness of mental health is undoubtedly important, and tackling stigma around this issue, particularly among men, is definitely something that we should embrace. But it’s only part of the solution, and not looking any further can be damaging.
Let’s start with the appointment of our friend Dr Alex. There is no doubt in my mind that he deserves some kind of recognition, as he clearly cares deeply about mental health and has done a lot of work advocating for young people’s mental health, which I’m sure we can all get behind. Add into the mix his concurrent work on an NHS A&E ward during the pandemic, and he’s clearly an excellent role model. But the BBC article reporting his appointment didn’t mention any new funding for his cause, or for mental health provision in general. Neither, for that matter, did the government announcement. So, in the final analysis, what we have is a lot of positive noise – definitely the right kind of noise, but still just noise.
But what is to be done? Surely this is still an improvement, so criticising it is hardly helpful, is it? Well, it might be an improvement, but it falls short of making a material difference to those who need help the most.
How do I know this? Well, to start off with, we have a dual crisis in mental healthcare provision in this country. In 2018, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) published a report identifying a £105 million decrease in funding for mental health services in real terms since 2011-2012. The chancellor recently announced $500 million in funding for mental health services, but it is much harder to grow an organisation than to let it wither on the vine. This is evident from the second problem. Staffing is an ongoing crisis in the NHS, with the central policy programme of the past decade leaving it poorly equipped for a tide of new cases which began to rise even before the pandemic and the consequential lockdowns.
These measures were and remain necessary at the time of writing, and the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, but they come with a cost to quality-of-life for the community. Between 2013 and 2018, the patient to doctor ratio in mental healthcare services has risen 36%, while the ratio of patients to nurses rose 34%. An injection of funding may well stabilise this deteriorating situation, but it will take time to build up numbers of trained and experienced staff. Moreover, it’s not clear how long government largesse will last, what with major economic troubles beginning to bite.
In short, it is all very well and good to talk about raising awareness, but there remains a lack of sustained planning for mental health provision in the UK which desperately needs to be amended.