Isabel Hardman Isabel Hardman

Mental health and benefits: ministers get the wrong end of the stick

Every so often when ministers are considering a policy, they send a little kite up to see how it’s received. Sometimes it gets hit by a lightning bolt of fury from a party’s target voters, and is never heard of again. Sometimes it flutters about and no-one plays a blind bit of notice. And sometimes the kite gets rapturous applause. There seems to be a mixed response to the kite flown today that people with anxiety and depression could be forced to have a talking therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy or risk losing their benefits.

On the one hand, it’s welcome that ministers want to help people with mental health conditions that can be managed so that someone can go back to work. Unemployment is hardly conducive to good self-esteem and strong mental health. On the other, it’s pretty darn difficult to force someone to take any treatment at all, not to mention unethical. Health Select Committee chair Sarah Wollaston doesn’t like it for that reason:

But there’s another point that’s worth considering, which is that talking therapies often have very long waiting lists. This policy would perhaps make more sense were talking therapies so readily available that anyone could ask for them and find themselves in a consulting room or talking to a therapist over the phone within days. But that is not the case, and is not anywhere near the case, either. Mind, the mental health charity, estimates that one in 10 patients waits longer than a year to receive psychological treatment. There is no suggestion in today’s kite that incorporating talking therapies as mandatory element of the work programme would include investment in increasing the availability of those treatments.

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