“Cutting social assistance is counterproductive”

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Paul Farmer is chief executive of mental health charity Mind. After 16 years in the job, he will step down in October to take on the role of chief executive of Age UK. He is also Chairman of NHS England’s Mental Health Independent Advisory and Oversight Group, a consortium of healthcare leaders and experts overseeing the NHS Mental Health Long Term Plan In England. He co-wrote Thrive at work, an independent review of workplace mental health for the government, and is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. In 2016, he received a CBE in New Year’s Honours.

How do you start your working day?

At 6:30 a.m. with the Today’s programbreakfast with The Guardian (mine may be the only household that still gets a paper), and in these hybrid days, either a walk or a run in the park, the ride back to the home office, or a trip on the new Elizabeth line (that worth the wait) to our Stratford office.

What was the peak of your career?

I chaired the Five-year vision for mental health, which got an extra £1billion a year from the government, helping a million more people with mental health issues. I’m also extremely proud of Mind’s participation in the Time to Change campaign, which paved the way for a change in public attitudes through the incredible voices of people who have experienced mental health issues themselves. They have formed the bedrock of change over the past ten years.

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What was the hardest moment of your career?

Resignation from government welfare group; never an easy choice and it sent shockwaves. But you can’t sit inside a group knowing that their work has been compromised. Separately, each leader has found Covid incredibly challenging, particularly when we’ve had to deal with a combination of declining donations and rising demand. Luckily the support for Mind was amazing, but the demand keeps growing.

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If you could give your youngster one career advice, what would it be?

Keep a constant eye on your work/life balance because you never know what’s coming your way. I will always regret not having spent more time with my partner, Claire, before she fell ill and died of cancer.

Which political figure inspires you?

I’ve worked with many politicians – some good, some bad. Most want to make a difference and have to endure terrible and unacceptable abuse these days. But for me, Norman Lamb stands out in mental health. He always talked about it, both personally and professionally. And as Minister of Mental Health, he made a real difference. Oh, and he mortgaged his house so his son could be Tinchy Stryder’s promoter…

What UK policy or fund is the government putting in place?

There were two aspects of the lockdown that were right – first, the time we had for physical activity for our physical and mental health. So many people told us it was a lifesaver. Second, the furlough scheme was the right policy at the right time.

And what policy should the British government abandon?

We have fought long and hard to eliminate welfare sanctions – cutting off support for people when they are unable to do the things they are asked to do. We have heard of people who have missed appointments at the Jobcentre because they were in hospital and their income has been reduced as a result, for example. Sanctions are counterproductive and punitive, based on faulty assumptions about lack of motivation, especially for people with disabilities who are often already vulnerable. For people with mental health issues, they create even more anxiety and are less likely to help people find work, rather than more.

What international government policy could the UK learn from?

In Australia, the government has introduced a set of youth hubs called A lead to support youth mental health. After the pandemic, we now know that the number of young people with mental health problems rose from one in nine in 2017 to one in six in 2021. Mental health issues are easier and cheaper to treat the faster people access help. These centers could make all the difference for young people and prevent a lost generation, so we are calling on the UK government to fund a network of early intervention centers across England for everyone aged 11-25, so that they can access support in a non-clinical setting without the need for an appointment or referral.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?

A new mental health law, which addresses and dismantles the systemic racism that people face when they are detained under the article and are at their worst. No more health professionals four times more likely to section blacks than whites and are more than four times more likely to retain or keep black people in isolation while they are hospitalized. In 2020-21, 3,436 people were subjected to face-down or “prone” restraint, which is the most dangerous and deadly form of restraint. Implementing the long-awaited reforms to the Mental Health Act was in the Queen’s Speech, so it is an achievable ambition and one that should not be delayed any longer.

Read more: The Policy Ask with Ellie Mae O’Hagan: “The hardest work is not necessarily done by those at the top”

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