Research shows that people with mental health conditions are more likely to experience unemployment, poverty and poor physical health throughout their lives. In this article, Thomas Smith, policy advisor in the Department for Work and Pensions, describes the innovative work his team are doing, in conjunction with the Department of Health, to help more of those dealing with these issues to access and stay in employment.
Since 2010, working closely with mental health experts and campaigners, the Government has been committed to raise awareness and tackle poor mental health across our society.
This includes, for the first time ever, giving mental and physical health conditions equal priority in law; providing an extra £120 million to help implement the maximum waiting time standards for mental health services from this year; and investing an additional £1.25 billion over the next five years to improve children and young people’s mental health.
Overall, the money going into mental health has increased by £302 million in 2014/15 from £11.7 billion in 2013/14. At the same time, more people than ever before are receiving talking therapies. Over 3 million people have entered treatment through the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme, with more than 1 million people able to manage their condition more effectively.
Furthermore, raising awareness amongst employers through the Disability Confident campaign and the work of the Government-backed Time to Change campaign are examples of policies that have made a real difference, both in helping to transform attitudes and in tackling poor mental health.
Despite these positive steps, there is still more that needs to be done.
We still hesitate to talk to each other about our mental health conditions openly and honestly.
In large part, that’s down to the stigma that stubbornly lingers around this issue.
For too long, mental health conditions have been seen as a sign of weakness: something to be hidden and somehow less deserving of sympathy than physical illness.
Yet, we know that at least one in four of us will experience mental ill health each year (with 75% of adult mental health problems beginning by the age of 18).
Indeed, this is an issue that affects us all – if not personally, then someone we know, work with or love.
But out-dated prejudices continue to leave many people living with mental health issues feeling isolated, alone or unable to get the right treatment at the right time.
As a result of these problems, the Government has focussed on new and innovative approaches to improving people’s mental health, based on the sound evidence of academics, researchers and trusted economic and health organisations.
One such example is the world-leading joint work pioneered by the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health.
This joint work is based on research which suggests that, where appropriate, employment can aid the recovery, rehabilitation and long-term health of people with common mental health issues, reducing the risks and harmful physical, mental and social impacts of long-term incapacity for those affected.
As Secretary of State for the Department for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, recently said: “work can keep people healthy as well as help promote recovery if someone falls ill.”
In other words – appropriate work can be good for the health of those with mental health conditions.
Building on this, the DWP and DH have been leading a pioneering series of voluntary mental health pilots across the country: to identify how better coordination of mental health and employment services could help thousands of people improve their mental health, whilst finding and staying in work.
Considering that around a quarter of Jobseekers Allowance claimants and almost half of Employment and Support Allowance claimants suffer from anxiety, depression or other common mental health conditions, there are potentially huge health, wellbeing and economic benefits to these pilots.
Each of these pilots has tested a different approach of combined health and employment support. For example, whether a week of focused group work could help boost the employment prospects and wellbeing of Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants who are not participating in the Work Programme and struggling with their job search.
Another pilot is testing early access to supported Cognitive Behavioural Therapy online; while another provides telephone assistance that integrates health and employment advice.
In addition, DWP and DH are looking at the viability of providing specific combined mental health and employment support, such as IAPT and tailored employment services, to test whether such a combination offers better improvements in health outcomes and benefit off-flows than either usual Jobcentre support or usual IAPT support for claimants with common mental health conditions.
The early findings from all of these pilots emphasise the importance and clear health, wellbeing and economic benefits of closer collaboration between frontline services, like Jobcentres, health care professionals and other specialists to help people in their recovery: showing that clinical intervention on its own is not always enough.
Critically, many of those selected to participate are already starting to see positive changes, taking the first, important steps they need to get their lives back on track.
These pilots are due to be completed in the near future and, once they’ve been evaluated, DWP and DH will look to replicate the benefits they’ve generated across services: delivering higher employment, better mental health and reducing the £70 billion per annum that mental health issues cost us as a society.
Taking those important next steps
Through the joint work of the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health, the Government has shown that it can be a world leader in helping those with mental health conditions get the support they need, and at the right time.
Such work highlights that improving the country’s mental health must be tackled by all Government departments and public and wider sector organisations continuing to work more closely together.
What has been achieved so far represents steps towards culture change and a break with how mental health has been treated in the past - but they are small steps on a long road, and, as such, there is still more that needs to be done.
Fortunately, the problem is not insurmountable and Government has shown that it can make a positive difference, both now and in the future.