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Opinion

The new Minister for Mental Health and Early Years must leave nobody behind

27 Mar 2024 4 minute read
Jayne Bryant

James Downs, Mental Health Campaigner

Vaughan Gething’s new cabinet appointments have seen the “Minister for Mental health and wellbeing” (previously Lynne Neagle, MS) replaced with a new role given to Jayne Bryant, MS, now the “Minister for Mental Health and Early Years.”

Gething has highlighted this role as something he is particularly proud of creating, with its aim to ensure we deliver in the first 1000 days of the life of every child.”

Whilst we wait for more detail on what exactly the Welsh Government hope to deliver in the first 1000 days, we can hope that it is not the perpetuation of child poverty when we know that socioeconomic disadvantage is a risk factor for many physical and mental illnesses.

The shift in focus towards the early years of Welsh lives is to be wholeheartedly applauded – there is much research that shows that this is a key time in the developmental trajectory of each individual that predicts health outcomes across the life course.

It is also well evidenced that early interventions to support family mental health can form an important part of preventative approaches up-stream that are better than resource-intensive treatments and suffering downstream.

Focussing on early years and prevention are absolutely what we need to do as a country. However, this mustn’t be at the expense of people who are already suffering. The risk when the pot of money is small is that the needs of one group get pitted against the equally valid needs of other groups.

Money tends to flow towards the areas where the most money can be saved and the most suffering prevented, such as early intervention. This is something we have seen in England with significant investment into Improved Access for Psychological Therapies (IAPT) services for mild to moderate mental health problems at the same time as a marked reduction in the available number of mental health inpatient beds.

Under-treated mental illness

We know that too many people in Wales are suffering with untreated and under-treated mental illness. We must make sure that these people also get a significant focus alongside the needs of our youngest citizens in the work of the new Minister.

As well as being a Minister for Mental Health, Jayne Bryant MS needs to be an effective and vocal Minister for those with mental illness, across the lifespan.

Whilst evidence shows that 75% of lifelong mental illness will be present by age 24, this means that a significant proportion of mental ill health develops in adulthood, well after the early years.

It is true that on a neurobiological level, the developing brain in the first years of life is especially plastic – both vulnerable to adverse experiences and hugely capable of positive change and growth.

However the latest research also shows that this potential for neuroplasticity and change is not confined to childhood, and that the potential for recovery cannot be written off amongst older groups of people.

The Wellbeing of Future Generations Act (2015) places an obligation on decision-makers to consider the impact of all policies and legislation on the health and wellbeing of future generations.

Decisions

But we also need to consider the impact of decisions that are not taken, action that is not being committed to, and the help that people need that is not being provided.

In renewing this vital focus on the first years of Welsh lives, our Government also needs to remember that the health of future generations depends on the health of their caregivers.

To fail to act to radically expand and improve the quality of mental health service provision in Wales for all ages will undermine the fabric of the society into which people are born for years to come.

Ultimately, we need far greater resources to ensure that everyone can be supported with their mental health, from staying well to treating serious mental illness.

Improving the lives of those with mental health problems is as important as preventing them from developing in the first place, and people who are already suffering need to be listened to and have an active stake in developing the services of the future.

We need to be ambitious for mental health, from childhood to old age and everything in between – making sure that nobody is left behind.

James Downs is a mental health campaigner, researcher, psychological therapist and expert by experience in eating disorders. He lives in Cardiff and can be contacted at @jamesldowns on X and Instagram, or via his website: jamesdowns.co.uk


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Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
14 days ago

It would help the mental health of people if we didn’t need to fear our hospitals Mr Gething…

Linda Jones
Linda Jones
14 days ago

It seems that while Wales spends more on mental health services than many other countries the provision of services including hospital beds and professional staff is much lower. So too the outcomes. Where does all the money go?

James Downs
James Downs
14 days ago
Reply to  Linda Jones

I would be interested in digging out whether Wales really does spend more on mental health services *in relation to our population health needs* than other countries. Similarly with general health spending. The spend per person may be more per capita (e.g. Wales vs England), but is it really more in relation to what people need? Thinking of it as a crude metaphor, like a dose of medication: if a patient in country X (say, England) gets a 50% dose of the 100mg medication they need, and the patient in country Y (say, Wales) gets a 40% dose of the… Read more »

Last edited 14 days ago by James Downs
Linda Jones
Linda Jones
13 days ago
Reply to  James Downs

Our new first minister was, until recently, running our health service. Failed on all counts

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