Nick Clegg said mental health would be “smack bang on the front page of our next manifesto”, as one of a “small number of top priorities”.
Although some campaigners praised the move, others pointed out that mental health services have suffered under the coalition’s funding cuts.
Clegg said he had asked his first parliamentary question as an MP on the “second-class status given to mental health in the NHS”, and had “campaigned to end the Cinderella treatment of mental health services ever since”.
But he also said that he wanted to address the stigma felt by those with mental health conditions.
He told the party in his keynote speech to its annual conference in Glasgow: “I want this to be a country where a young dad chatting at the school gates will feel as comfortable discussing anxiety or depression as the mum who’s explaining how she sprained her ankle.”
He also announced that the coalition would introduce national waiting time targets for mental health services for the first time, from 2015-16.
He pledged treatment within six weeks for 75 per cent of people referred to the government’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme; treatment within two weeks for more than 50 per cent of people experiencing a first episode of psychosis; and a £30 million investment to help people in crisis access effective support in acute hospitals.
Clegg said: “Labour introduced waiting times in physical health – we will do the same for the many people struggling with conditions that you often can’t see, that we often don’t talk about, but which are just as serious.”
Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat minister for care and support, had earlier told the conference that it was “both morally wrong and economically stupid” that people with mental ill health get such a “raw deal”.
He said there was an “institutional bias” against mental health, and spoke about the case of former world boxing champion Frank Bruno, who told him of the “acute embarrassment and humiliation” of having three police cars arriving at his home when he had a mental health crisis.
Reaction to Clegg’s speech on social media was mixed.
One campaigner, @Quinonostante, said on Twitter: “A few electoral platitudes from #Clegg cannot convince me that they would affect real change.
Labour councillor Rodney Bates, @RodneyBates1, said: “Not a fan of Nick Clegg but any politician in any party who wants to talk about increasing resources for mental health is worth a listen.”
And @newapproach tweeted: “Nick Clegg will promise better #mh services in his speech today. How I wish I could believe him!”
Hamish Armstrong, @hraarmstrong, summed up many of the tweets when he wrote: “Completely agree with @nick_clegg over #mentalhealth. Problem is I don’t believe what he says anymore #liar #LibDems @LibDems #election2015.”
And writing on Disability Now website, disabled academic Ruth Patrick described Clegg’s speech as “gutsy”, but said it was “the coalition government which Clegg is a part of that has presided over real term reductions in the mental health budget”.
She said her biggest problem with the speech was the coalition’s “punitive social security reforms”, which had “increased the strain, anxiety and stress on many thousands of individuals and households, with negative consequences for the mental health of some of the most vulnerable in society”.
Although Lamb’s speech at the Liberal Democrat conference was strongly focused on health care, rather than social care, he described how – thanks to his agreement between 20 national organisations on standards in mental health crisis care – there had been a rapid drop in the number of people in mental health crisis who ended up in police cells.
He also announced that the entire health and social care budgets would be pooled by 2018, under a Liberal Democrat government, although it would be left to local areas how to carry this out.
And he announced a series of measures to help carers, including a new annual carers bonus of £250, and an increase in the amount someone can earn before losing their carer’s allowance to £150 a week.
8 October 2014