Interview with Amy Whitelock, Mind Campaigns

Q. What is your background in mental health?

Several of my close family members and friends have had experience of mental health problems, including bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression. My experiences of supporting them and observing how mental health services can often be inadequate gave me a fierce passion to work for Mind and campaign for equal rights for everyone who experiences mental distress. I previously worked for two years in Parliament and have an MSc in Public Policy from University College London.

Q. Can you tell us about your work for Mind on social inclusion and rights?

I lead on Mind’s ‘Another assault’ and ‘In the red’ campaigns. Another assault is Mind’s campaign for equal access to justice for victims and witnesses with mental health problems. Mind is working with criminal justice agencies to improve the experience of victims and witnesses with mental distress. Mind has achieved a number of successes to date, including:

  • This year the police standards agency, the NPIA, will launch a mandatory mental health training module for police officers, which was developed with input from Mind.
  • The Association of Chief Police Officers is publishing thorough guidance for police officers to accompany the training, and Mind fed in our learning from Another Assault to ensure the guidance focuses on victims and witnesses.
  • The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has developed a policy on victims and witnesses with mental health problems, as a direct result of Mind’s lobbying.
  • The CPS is also producing legal guidance for prosecutors on mental health, which we expect to be published shortly.
  • A landmark High Court ruling found the CPS had breached the Human Rights Act by denying a victim justice because he had a diagnosis of schizophrenia and prosecutors thought he may be an unreliable witness. The judge cited Mind’s evidence in his ruling.
  • In 2009 the House of Commons Justice committee published an inquiry into the CPS highlighting mental health as a specific area of failing – which was based largely on Mind’s evidence to the committee hearings.

Our Another assault campaign has succeeded in raising awareness of the extent of crime and victimisation faced by people with mental health problems, and the barriers they face when they seek justice. Now we are working with criminal justice agencies to ensure these commitments on mental health result in real changes to everyday practice on the frontline. Mind is currently producing a police guide on mental health, which showcases local good practice. In the summer this will be distributed to all 43 police forces in England and Wales. Mind is also producing a mental health toolkit for prosecutors, to help them make better decisions around mental health.

In the red is Mind’s campaign about debt and mental health, which recently won RADAR’s ‘Doing money differently’ award for making more debt advice and support available to people with mental distress, helping them become more financially capable and confident in engaging with financial institutions. This included a money advice section of the Mind website, which has been accessed by 60,000 people, as well as our In the red campaign. Mind’s 2008 research found there is a circular relationship between debt and mental health: people with mental health problems are more likely to fall into debt, whilst being in debt is likely to cause further mental distress. Our campaign aims to raise awareness of this and support people to break the cycle. To date our successes include: the production of several publications on debt and mental health which have been widely used by people with experience of mental health problems and debt, health and social care professionals, and those working in financial services; the establishment of the Government’s NHS Credit Crunch Stressline; and direct training for local Mind associations on how to deliver financial capability training to their clients.

Mind conducted a new survey in 2009 about people’s experiences of bailiffs, which found that contact with bailiffs can have a very damaging effect on mental health. We also found evidence of bailiffs behaving in insensitive, heavy-handed or potentially unlawful ways to try and recover debts, with particularly devastating effects for people already experiencing mental health problems. Working closely with Citizens Advice, Mind is lobbying the Ministry of Justice to ensure independent regulation of bailiffs is robust and effective.

Q. What is your opinion on Labour’s record in this key area?

A key social inclusion and rights issue for Mind is employment and we are about to launch a national campaign on this issue, to help employers and employers improve mental wellbeing and productivity in the workplace. But Government also has a crucial role to play, to tackle stigma in the workplace and put in place the right incentives and support mechanisms to ensure people with mental distress are able to gain and retain employment. Labour has made a concerted effort to improve employment prospects for people with mental health problems and accepted the recommendations of independent Perkins review, acknowledging the need to provide more tailored, flexible support to help people with mental health problems return to work. After a year of lobbying by Mind and other mental health charities, Labour has also introduced a ban on the use of pre-employment questionnaires in recruitment, which will prevent employers weeding out applicants on the basis of their mental health history, regardless of their ability to do the job.

However, there is still a long way to go in improving employment support services such as Access to Work, to make them appropriate and flexible for people with mental health conditions. Mind also has long-standing concerns about the accuracy of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA), the medical assessment used to decide which stream of employment benefit a person receives, as many people have told us they have been assessed as fit for work, despite having mental health problems that impact on their ability to work. Mind is campaigning to reform the WCA and to ensure that reforms to the welfare benefits system introduced under Labour do not penalise people with mental health problems who are unable rather than unwilling to work.

Q. What has been the response of the opposition parties on social inclusion & the rights of people experiencing mental distress?

An overarching social inclusion and rights issue is the urgent need to tackle stigma and discrimination, which prevents many people with mental distress from leading full lives. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have made encouraging noises around the need to tackle stigma and discrimination. For example, both opposition parties were actively supportive of our campaign to repeal section 141 of the Mental Health Act, the symbolic piece of law which states that an MP will automatically lose their seat if they are detained under the Act for six months or more. This sends a stigmatising signal that people with mental health problems are unable to recover and return to employment, so we are pleased both opposition parties have pledged to abolish s141 and hope to see this commitment realised in the next parliament.

However changing attitudes is the work of generations and what we really need is long term funding for Time to Change, Mind and Rethink’s ambitious anti-discrimination programme. Unfortunately, neither of the opposition parties have yet committed to this.

In the run up to the general election, Mind is campaigning on five main priorities we want all political parties to address if they form the next Government. In its first 100 days, we are calling on the new government to commit to:

1.    delivering a national public mental health strategy

2.    funding evidence-based campaigns such as Time to Change to eradicate mental health stigma and discrimination

3.    ensuring that the NHS offers a full range of evidence-based psychological therapies to everyone who needs them within 28 days of referral

4.    increasing support to help people with mental health problems into long-term employment, including a commitment to spend at least 25 per cent of the Access to Work budget on mental health employment

5.    funding mandatory mental health training for all frontline public service professionals, including frontline police, Crown Prosecution Service, social care, health care, welfare and teaching professionals.

Q. What would the perfect mental health service look like to you?

From my experience, everyone experiences mental distress uniquely, so good mental health services should be tailored to individual needs. For some people, medication may be appropriate, while others will respond better to psychotherapy, counselling, or alternative types of therapy. Others may require support networks or social inclusion activities like art classes, music lessons, walking groups and so on. Above all, mental health services can not be separated from other social inclusion or welfare services. Government departments, local authorities and service providers must recognise that perfect mental health services are not about traditional health services alone – that’s why one of Mind’s key general election asks is for the next Government to deliver a national public mental health strategy. The current mental health framework, New Horizons, rightly recognises that mental health problems can be caused and exacerbated by social factors, such as crime, debt, unemployment and poor housing. It also recognises that it is not the role of the NHS alone to tackle these social factors. The next government, whoever it may be, must build on this by delivering a public mental health strategy with actions and responsibilities for every government department and agency, at both a national and a local level.

Amy Whitelock
Policy and Campaigns Officer

2 thoughts on “Interview with Amy Whitelock, Mind Campaigns

    1. Actually, Dora, the fact of no one having commented says nothing at all, positive or negative. It simply means that no one has commented, as is the case with much of the content on the site. For what it’s worth, Dr B is okay in our book, one of the good guys.

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