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Catching Up with Luciana Berger, Britain's First Ever Shadow Minister for Mental Health

As part of World Mental Health Day, VICE spoke to the newly-appointed Labour MP about the state of Britain's mental health.

by Olivia Marks
Oct 12 2015, 3:45pm

Luciana Berger, Shadow Minister for Mental Health

Britain is in a mental health crisis. It's a statement UK residents have likely read time and again over the past couple of years, as countless media outlets report yet more cuts to services in the same breath they tell us increasing numbers of people need them. "Some people refer to it as a 'quiet crisis,' but however you want to describe it, there's a crisis going on right across the country," Luciana Berger, Labour's newly-appointed Shadow Minister for Mental Health, tells me over the phone from her Liverpool constituency.

Maybe, though, you don't need to read any more about this so-called crisis because you've got first-hand experience of it. Maybe you know what it's like to seek support from a service that's no longer there, or from an NHS that doesn't know how to treat you. When one in four of us will suffer from a mental illness at some point in our lifetime, it's likely you, or someone you know, is affected by the crisis. This is the reality beyond the media headlines and the political rhetoric that all of us know: someone you love is really struggling and they need help they can't get.

"If you just look at what's happened in the course of the last few years—everything from the fact that [the NHS regulator] Monitor applied cuts to mental health trusts that were 20 percent higher than the rest of the NHS, to the mammoth cuts to social care, to the government underspend this year on child and adolescent mental health services—it's clear that the government's rhetoric on Parity of Esteem is moving further away from the reality of what's going on," says Berger.

There's no question that our mental health services are in a sorry state, but what about the nation's collective mental health? Are we suffering more than days gone by and in larger numbers? "It's difficult to quantify and qualify, because many people don't get any help," says Berger. "I welcome the fact that there is going to be another prevalence study of mental health so we can get a true picture.

"Anecdotally, people say that there's more referrals, but part of the issue is transparency, and when it comes to mental health there is very little transparency to really understand the state of our nation's mental health and who needs services and who is actually getting help."

Having been a Labour MP since 2010, serving as Shadow Health Minister from 2013, Berger is the first person in any major British political party to occupy the position of Shadow Minister for Mental Health: a role that was created by Jeremy Corbyn on his election as leader last month. Although Berger and Corbyn may not share the same views on many issues—Berger was a firm Andy Burnham supporter in the Labour leadership campaign—there's no doubt they're unified in their commitment to bettering the UK's mental health. In his first day as Labour leader, Corbyn attended a community event promoting an NHS mental health trust, before he'd even elected his shadow cabinet.

These actions send a clear message to the country. A message that says mental health is being taken seriously by the opposition, and that it's high up on the agenda. And yet, the very fact Labour deems a minister for mental health necessary at all—that we need someone to work solely in that area—shows just how much work needs to be done to ensure mental health is seen, and treated, as on par with physical health.

"They shouldn't be treated any differently," Berger tells me emphatically. "If you walk into A&E with a broken bone you expect it to be fixed. If you need help because you've got a mental health condition you should get that help and support. At the last election we put into our manifesto that we thought it was important that people should have a right to talking therapies—it doesn't exist at the moment and it's still not there following the government's consultation into the NHS constitution. I think that just reinforces the difference between how physical health and mental health are considered."

But Berger is adamant that the two should, in fact, not be separate at all. "They should be integrated. We shouldn't be treating individual symptoms, we should be treating the whole person because mental and physical are interlinked. On average, people with mental health problems die 15-20 years earlier than those without because they've got physical health problems which aren't taken seriously as well."

Equality in treatment is crucial, but it's not the answer to Britain's mental health problem. In the same way we take measures to ensure we're kept in good physical health, we need to look at how we can prevent our mental health from getting to the point that it requires serious treatment in the first place.

Read more: The VICE Guide to Mental Health

"I think prevention is absolutely key," says Berger. "At the moment I know our system is too focused on what to do at the end—when someone's already in crisis—and actually we should be doing everything possible to look at early intervention because it helps people so much more and the outcomes are so much better. It just doesn't make sense that so much is focused on when people get to the point where they need in-patient support, particularly when we know that one in two adults with a diagnosable mental health condition will have developed it as a young person."

The response Berger has received in light of her appointment only underlines how important the public believes the issue to be as well. "I've heard from so many individuals—people affected, family members, carers, clinical professionals, grassroots voluntary groups, charities, and organizations—and all have responded so positively to the role. It really has been overwhelming. A number of people have said it's the reason they've joined or rejoined the Labour Party."

It would be easy to be cynical of Berger's last statement, and difficult to prove if she's right, but when so many people are affected by such a myriad of mental health conditions, many of which are still barely understood, then it's not a stretch of the imagination to see why this might be the single issue which will draw people to—or back to—Labour.

And if anyone has got a good idea of the many different issues affecting the public, it's Berger. Not just because of her Wavertree constituents coming to her for help—from a man suffering with PTSD, to another who had been declared fit for work despite letters from his GP stating otherwise—but because of the hundreds of emails she receives.

"It's been important to capture all the different themes from the emails I get. I've counted 80 different themes so far. One of the things I've been struck by is perinatal mental health and issues around new mums and dads. Because it's not just mums that are affected by post-natal depression, but dads too."

We're beginning to take seriously too the socio-economic factors that contribute to our mental wellbeing. How things like the housing crisis, or the government's current Back-to-Work scheme can have a detrimental affect on our health.

"It's absolutely crucial that we look at mental health not just through the prism of health but in a cross-cutting way. And that's why my role's been created. I'm not just going to be working within health, I'm going to be working with my colleague John Healey on housing, I'll be working with Owen Smith when it comes to work and pensions, Lucy Powell on education, Michael Dugher around culture, media, and sport. We have to acknowledge that it goes both ways and that there's many social factors which will impact negatively, as well as positively, on mental health."

Increased demand on student counseling services, children turning to the internet for mental health advice, the fact that suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50, the need for better mental health services for the LGBT community: these are just a small number of areas that Berger wants to address, and that our current government urgently needs to.

"We need to hold the government to account and it's incumbent on us all that care about this issue to actually make Parity of Esteem a reality. We strive for equality, and equality in mental health matters as much as anything else. I see it as an imperative, not a choice."

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