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Councillor calls for mental health attitudes to change as he praises new policies

James Harrison

Attitudes to mental health need to be reformed in the same way attitudes to sexism and racism were, according to a Royal Borough councillor.

Cllr MJ Saunders (Con, Cookham) was speaking after the Prime Minister’s announcement in the New Year of plans to ‘transform’ the way the issue is approached.

The council’s cabinet member for finance, who has also been diagnosed with subclinical bipolar disorder, said the announcement, which promised extra training for teachers as well as funding for community care and workplace support, had come as a ‘huge but pleasant surprise’.

He now hopes one of the most important outcomes from the intervention will be greater understanding of the barriers faced by those dealing with mental health challenges.

“I remember starting work when sexism and racism in the work place was a fundamental problem,” he said.

“Over the last 30 years it has become unacceptable and everyone understands it is unacceptable for people to hold inappropriate attitudes around sexism and racism.

“My belief is that mental health needs to move rapidly in the same direction.”

In her speech, delivered on Monday, January 9, Theresa May called mental illness the country’s ‘hidden injustice... shrouded in a completely unacceptable stigma and dangerously disregarded’.

To combat this, she promised plans to tackle the issue at all stages – not just in hospitals, but also in schools, offices and communities.

And while these things are to be welcomed, Cllr Saunders said he hoped one of the most important outcomes would be to ‘kick the discussion way up the agenda’.

“Open, honest discussions about the challenges of mental health are highly important,” he added.

“You can very well appreciate that it remains largely misunderstood and therefore for perfectly understandable reasons some social stigmas that mean a lot of people don’t feel able to be honest and clear about their challenges.”

He is clear however that efforts to ‘nudge it [mental illness] into the norm’ will mean little unless there is greater understanding of the wide spectrum of issues it covers.

In his own case, this means fluctuations in his mood and personality which can be managed with small amounts of medication.

Sometimes, this can even be as simple as being told to slow down.

He feels however that a fear of simply being labelled ‘mad’ means many aren’t keen to reveal their challenges in detail.

Indeed, he feels a benchmark for the new policy’s success will be when workers can talk freely about mental health with their employers, who can in turn do more to accommodate them, as well as recognising they can be ‘an important and meaningful part of the workforce’.

Dr Adrian Hayter, chairman of the Windsor, Ascot and Maidenhead Clinical Commissioning Group, was also pleased with the Prime Minister’s efforts to highlight the issue.

There had been some criticism of the speech for failing to provide enough money – the £15m pledged is the equivalent of about £23,000 for each parliamentary constituency.

But Dr Hayter agreed that a change in attitudes and encouragement for people, particularly the young, to seek help when they need it was as much of a priority.

He said: “I think there will always be a question of resources, like are we putting enough support into front line people?

“But this is also about changing the way people look at things and that is not necessarily about resources.”

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