From education to employment

Not just time for talk but time for support

It’s been a long time coming, but mental health is now firmly on the agenda. Campaigns such as ‘It’s time to talk’ have begun to tackle the stigma around mental illness, whilst an increasing number of high profile figures have come clean about their personal mental health struggles –including even Members of Parliament, a breed not always noted for its candour.

So are we seeing a sea change in societal attitudes to mental health or is this merely another false dawn?

Well, we know that mental health problems are endemic in our society. Mental health charities estimate around one in four people will experience a mental health issue at some point in their lives. Although admittedly not as high as the lifetime risk of cancer (one in two of us born after 1960 will succumb to that) or heart disease (one in three of us women will suffer and, sorry, 50 percent of you men), surely – still – mental health constitutes something of a national emergency?

Amongst the long term unemployed, we believe this figure is much higher. While official figures estimate that around 10 percent of those on the Work Programme have a mental health condition, evidence from providers suggests a far higher percentage struggle with mental ill health. Firm figures are hard to come by. Whilst some jobseekers referred to the Work Programme will have a pronounced and acknowledged mental health condition, many will suffer from lower level depression, often not diagnosed or recognised by the jobseeker themselves.

We’re then faced with the question of cause and effect. To what extent are these mental health problems leading to unemployment, or is rather that the lack of a stable job is leading to poor mental health? In a society where many of us are defined by what we do – or what we have – it seems highly likely that prolonged periods out of the labour market exacerbate low confidence and self esteem contributing in turn to recognisable mental illness.

Work, therefore, can be part of the answer. We know that good jobs are good for health. We also know that unstable work (those famous zero hour contracts), although suitable, indeed potentially desirable, for some, can be profoundly negative for others.

The employment support service, whether delivered by public, private or voluntary sector organisations, thus potentially has a lot to offer. ERSA members have very many examples of individuals who have worked with their advisers to identify and overcome problems, including mental health conditions. Commonly used therapies include CBT and other talking therapies, group interactions and supported employment placements.

This month, the Government announced a new package of support for mental health. This is great news and the right thing both morally and economically. The focus at the moment however is on children’s mental health and that of certain other groups. It’s hard to argue with that. However, we also believe that there needs to be a radical extension of mental health support for the unemployed – and particularly the longer term unemployed.

The Work Programme, the largest employment support programme in the UK, is performing well, with the latest figures showing that 680,000 previously long term unemployed people have now found work with its support. However, the Work Programme is no magic bullet. It is simply not resourced to meet the scale of the demand for mental health services that exists in the jobseeker population.

We believe it’s time for a radical overhaul. At present, there are people with severe mental health problems being mandated onto employment programmes who simply should not be there. More widespread are jobseekers who suffer from depression, anxiety and related conditions who would strongly benefit from medical therapies but suffer as supply is not meeting demand.

Mental health provision shouldn’t be a luxury – it should be a necessity. It’s therefore great that we’re talking more about mental health, but as a society we need to act as well.

Kirsty McHugh is chief executive of the Employment Related Services Association (ERSA)

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