What is the point of a Minister for Suicide Prevention? That Jackie Doyle-Price is taking on the role as part of her portfolio as a health minister is one of the big government announcements on World Mental Health Day, but it’s tempting to ask why on earth Theresa May is making such appointments. Some might wonder whether government can really stop suicides, while others might question the difference that giving a minister an additional job title will really make.
It’s the sort of question that you might reasonably ask about World Mental Health Day itself, as it happens. A fair number of people who have mental illnesses find the rather trite ‘it’s OK to talk’ messages not just dispiriting, but also inaccurate, as they suggest firstly that there’s just one day of the year when it’s OK to talk, and secondly, that talking will sort you out when, in reality, what you need is medication that’s had proper research poured into it, access to therapies rather than a year-long-waiting list, and – in the case of some conditions like bipolar disorder – the acknowledgement that while cure currently isn’t possible, living well with an illness really is.
These are all very valid concerns. But there is reason for cheer. For one thing mental health has become such a salient political issue that politicians of all hues want to compete over who has the best offer on the matter. Theresa May held a reception in Downing Street this afternoon to mark World Mental Health Day, and considers it important to talk regularly about it, too. It is much easier for people to be matter of fact about suffering from a mental illness than it was five years ago, for instance. We have even moved on from the era of politicians telling us that it’s important to talk about mental health while hastily adding that they’d never had any problems of their own, just in case people thought less of them for having a mental, rather than physical, illness.
It is also encouraging that it is sufficiently politically salient for a government to think appointing a Minister for Suicide Prevention is a worthwhile venture, and to give that minister instructions on how to reduce the suicide rate, including overseeing the implementation of local authorities’ suicide prevention plans. Governments signal their priorities through the naming of departments and ministerial appointments, and they certainly don’t bother signalling said priorities if they don’t think people will be paying attention.
But yes, all these things can end up being pointless and tokenist if they are just one day or just a new name. Nothing wrong with either, but nothing much good comes from a government feeling it has ticked a box and can move on to virtue signalling about the next matter. Mental health charities are upbeat about the targets set in the Five Year Forward View for the NHS, because they see it as the first time the government has really committed to psychiatric and psychological treatment properly. But then again, they’re fearful that the money to meet these targets might not get there, and that even if it does, those targets aren’t exactly earth-shattering. A minister holding local government to account on suicide prevention is a good thing, but as with all ministerial appointments, it’s very difficult to hold that minister to account given the level of churn in government: most have moved on to other jobs or back to the backbenches long before it is clear whether their work has made a difference.
Perhaps the best way of looking at it is that we are at the foothills when it comes to mental health, and progress could be so much faster than it is. But if politicians and the general public are becoming more enthusiastic about mental health, even if just for a day, then it’s a damn sight better than the way it has been approached even in the past few years.