Mental health culture has gone too far, says Mel Stride

Mel Stride
Mr Stride said 'as a culture we seem to have forgotten that work is good for mental health' - Christopher Pledger for the Telegraph
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Britain’s mental health culture is in danger of having “gone too far” and “normal anxieties of life” are being labelled as an illness, the Work and Pensions Secretary has warned.

Speaking as he unveiled plans to make 150,000 people signed off work with “mild” conditions look for a job, Mel Stride said that the UK’s benefits bill was being pushed up by the problem.

In an interview with The Telegraph, he suggested an increased public focus on talking about mental health had led to people effectively self-diagnosing conditions.

His intervention comes amid growing alarm over the ballooning welfare bill, which is set to hit £100 billion this year, and the impact of worklessness on the economy.

The spiralling cost is being fuelled by a sharp rise in the number of people, especially the young, who are on long-term sickness payments for mental health conditions.

Mr Stride warned that “as a culture we seem to have forgotten that work is good for mental health” and he suggested people were being signed off too easily.

“While I’m grateful for today’s much-more-open approach to mental health, there is a danger that this has gone too far,” the Work and Pensions Secretary said.

“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.”

Mr Stride said it was positive that attitudes had changed, meaning those who had previously “suffered in silence” were now “getting the help that they’ve needed”.

But he voiced fears the debate had tipped too far the other way and some people were now “convincing themselves they have some kind of serious mental health condition as opposed to the normal anxieties of life”.

“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 94pc of occasions, they will be signed off as not fit to carry out any work whatsoever,” he added.

Mr Stride acknowledged the topic was sensitive but said it must not become a “no go area” and was “something we need to start having an honest, grown-up debate about”.

“It is too important for people and their futures, too important for the way that welfare works and too important for the economy to just ignore,” he said.

The number of Britons classified as economically inactive – meaning they are neither in work nor looking for a job – has ballooned by 700,000 since the pandemic.

Mental health problems have largely fuelled the rise, with the number of working age people on the top level of sickness benefit soaring to 2.4 million.

They receive an extra £390 a month on top of their basic welfare payouts and are under no requirement to even prepare for a return to work.

One in seven people in that bracket were put there after a government assessor deemed that working would pose a “substantial risk” to their health.

That rate is 14 times higher than ministers anticipated when they introduced the substantial risk category in 2011, with Mr Stride planning to clamp down on its use.

When the rules were brought in they were intended to cover just 1pc of the most extreme cases, such as where people had expressed suicidal thoughts.

Mr Stride intends to rewrite the guidance so that only people with the most severe mental health conditions can be signed off under the substantial risk route.

He is separately introducing a requirement for people who suffer from milder problems, such as social anxiety, to take up jobs where they can work from home.

The reforms are part of a planned overhaul of the Work Capability Assessment, which is not due to come into force until after the next general election.

The cost of welfare payments including universal credit, housing subsidies and disability benefit is expected to rise to £100.9 billion this financial year. It has already jumped by more than 20 per cent in the year after the 2020 lockdown, from £78.9 billion to £95.6 billion in 2020-21 following a surge in claims related to mental health and muscular pain.

Ministers are separately investing an extra £2.3 billion a year in mental health services, including 380,000 talking therapy sessions under back-to-work plans.

Mr Stride made the remarks as he visited a sports centre in London to mark the Government’s flagship youth employment programme having been taken up one million times by 16-24-year-olds.

The Work and Pensions Secretary praised young staff but warned that as a society “we’ve maybe lost a sense of what work has been about in the past”.

He said that he was “troubled” by social media trends such as “quiet quitting” and “lazy girl jobs” where youngsters brag online about doing the bare minimum.

“This speaks to something that’s inherently quite unhealthy and we need to have a good think about that,” he added.

His remarks came as MPs warned that benefits were too low to cover living costs and urged ministers to introduce an “uprating guarantee” so they rise every year.

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