Lib Dems are promising to revolutionise mental health care. This is opportunism, pure and simple

Mind

16th March 2015

Given their record in government, any sane person would regard a pledge by the Liberal Democrats with a healthy dose of cynicism. Their latest hobby-horse is mental health; it has been the subject of several recent speeches and the issue has a dedicated page on their website. The ‘mental health action plan’ consists of seven pledges, most of which are pitifully vague.

For example, the pompously named ‘Crisis Care Concordat’ is about ‘making sure no one experiencing mental health crisis is ever turned away from services’. I’m not being flippant when I ask: what do they mean by ‘mental health crisis’? It’s not like diagnosing pneumonia or a broken leg. People manifesting symptoms of clinical depression or schizophrenia should obviously not be turned away, any more than anyone posing a suicide risk – and one hopes they aren’t. But does being messed up as a result of a night’s boozing and drug-taking count as a mental health crisis? Who decides?

Then there’s ‘giving people the same choice for their mental healthcare as they do for their physical health’. That could mean anything – and cost anything. GPs’ surgeries are full of patients asking for therapy for this or that problem. If that right becomes automatic – and of course the Lib Dems can’t be bothered with the fine print that would tell us – the drain on the NHS would be disastrous.

There’s also a pledge to invest ‘over £400m to give thousands of people access to evidence-based psychological therapies’. That sounds like cognitive and behavioural therapy (CBT), which can indeed be extremely useful – to just about anyone who wants it. It’s also expensive. Are the Lib Dems proposing an automatic right to CBT for any patient who demands ‘access’ to it? In which case £400m won’t begin to cover it. Hence, perhaps, the use of the word ‘over’.

Nothing in the field of healthcare is more easily abused than mental health resources. And demand will always outstrip supply, in a society in which more and more behaviour is pathologised. Wisely deployed mental healthcare can work wonders. But these sort of woolly promises don’t inspire confidence, except perhaps among Lib Dem-leaning voters in the softer end of the public sector.

And even if these proposals were fully costed and backed by rigorous clinical research, does anyone trust the Liberal Democrats to implement them? The party is synonymous with broken promises. Very few people who attended university during this parliament will ever consider voting for them. Nor will their cash-strapped parents. Or anyone whose child used to attend a Sure Start centre.

Perhaps broken promises are inevitable in coalition government; cynical opportunism isn’t. At this point in the electoral cycle it is hard to believe that the Lib Dems care about anything other than their own piss-poor poll ratings. Theirs is a party is on the verge of a mass cull, and this fantasy – that they can revolutionise the treatment of mental health – is aimed squarely at headline writers and undecided voters.

The diagnostics may be sound: mental health isn’t always taken seriously and some services are underfunded. But the Lib Dems’ posturing on this issue is unedifying because we know how inadequate the aftercare would be. Just ask students about Nick Clegg’s willingness to abandon his principles in return for a fleet of ministerial cars.