Politics

Tory minister Mel Stride sparks backlash after claiming mental health culture has 'gone too far'

Mental health culture has “gone too far”, Work and pensions secretary Mel Stride has warned – comments that experts have slammed as “concerning”.

Mel Stride/ work capability assessments

Mel Stride, the work and pensions secretary. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Mental health culture has “gone too far”, work and pensions secretary Mel Stride has warned – comments that experts have slammed as “concerning”.

Too many Brits pathologise the “normal anxieties of life,” Stride told the Telegraph on Thursday (21 March), unveiling welfare reforms obliging people who are signed off work with “mild illness“ to look for employment.

Under new rules, only those with “very severe” mental health conditions will be exempt from looking for work.

The changes will impact around 150,000 people, Stride estimated.

“There is a real risk now that we are labelling the normal ups and downs of human life as medical conditions which then actually serve to hold people back and, ultimately, drive up the benefit bill,” he said.

“If they go to the doctor and say ‘I’m feeling rather down and bluesy’, the doctor will give them on average about seven minutes and then, on 94% of occasions, they will be signed off as not fit to carry out any work whatsoever.”

The work and pensions secretary expressed gratitude for today’s “much more open approach to mental health” – but expressed a fear that it has “gone too far.”

“As a culture, we seem to have forgotten that work is good for mental health,” he added.

However, mental health advocates were not impressed. Dr Sarah Hughes, chief executive of mental health charity Mind, warned that the comments could increase the shame around mental health.

“The comments made by the work and pensions secretary are concerning and risk increasing the stigma around mental health,” she said.

“Politicians and commentators need to consider the impact of their words on people who face exceptionally difficult circumstances.”

According to data published by the DWP last month, around 20,000 people are assessed for mental health benefit claims every month.

Some 1.5 million people who applied for incapacity benefits between 2019 and 2023 were granted the highest level of payout, and are under no obligation to seek a job.

However, the answer to this problem is not to “force” these people into work, Dr Hughes said, but to bolster mental health services.

 “While latest figures from the DWP do show an increase in the number of people unable to work due to mental health problems, the answer is not to force them into employment regardless,” she said.

“People need to be offered tailored support from experts if they are to return to work, not threats of losing what little money they currently have to live on. That support just isn’t there – with 1.9 million people on waiting lists for NHS mental health services it is clear that the focus should be on improving the system.”

Mental health issues must be considered within a broader economic context, said Tom Pollard, head of social policy at the New Economics Foundation.

“Many of the people Mel Stride suggests are mistaking the ‘normal ups and downs of human life’ for mental health problems are, in reality, enduring circumstances (and an associated mental toll) that I don’t think he has any real experience or understanding of,” he said.

Three out of five Britons (60%) report that the cost of living crisis is negatively impacting their mental health, according to research from King’s College London. Some 80% of people who said they were struggling financially reported feeling negative about life over the next year given rising costs – far higher than the figure for people who said they were coping financially (31%).

“It’s no coincidence that the record numbers of people signed off from work coincides with a crisis in mental health care and a cost of living crisis – perhaps if this government could focus their energy on providing the right support for people struggling with their mental health, with a properly funded NHS which addresses the astronomical wait times for people seeking mental health treatment, more people would be able to return to the workplace,” said Simon Gunning, CEO of the Campaign Against Living Miserably.

Demand for the CALM helpline has surged 97% in two years, he said, adding “This isn’t simply a ‘choice’ from people who want to avoid going to the office. This is a public health crisis which is being ignored.”

People experiencing deprivation are far more likely to consider death by suicide; Mind research shows that 2.7 million people in the UK have contemplated taking their own life over financial pressures.

On social media, many people were quick to point out the correlation between emaciated public services and poor national health.

“I wonder if Mel Stride has considered the possibility that 14 years of Conservative rule and a serious downturn in the nation’s mental health are not completely unconnected?,” queried comedian Alistair Barrie on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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