As Wales prepares to go to the polls for a pandemic Senedd election, Emma Schofield takes a closer look at the promises being made to support our mental health in Wales, asking what the commitments really mean, whether they go far enough and why it matters for the arts sector in Wales.
If there’s one thing election season is not short of, it’s words: party political broadcasts, the growing pile of leaflets which suddenly turn up on your doormat, the endless cycle of debates and discussions across TV and radio. It can start to feel that there is no escape from the words, or the promises. All too often those promises turn out to be empty, but when it comes to mental health in Wales in 2021 there is no room for hollow electioneering. After years of predictions of impending disaster when it comes to our mental health in Wales, we are rapidly running out of time.
The mental health crisis is no longer an abstract concern which hovers somewhere in our future; it is real and it is happening right now in Wales.
The evidence is overwhelming, Mind Cymru research revealed that a staggering seventy four per cent of young people aged between thirteen and twenty four reported that their mental health and deteriorated during the Covid-19 lockdown in the Spring of 2020. The same research reported that more than half of adults had experienced worsening mental health in the initial stages of the pandemic, with many also reporting that they did not feel entitled to seek help for their struggle. We don’t know yet what the full impact of the pandemic has been on suicide rates in Wales, but we do know that pre-pandemic rates of suicide, especially among males, had risen again in 2019. Even the Children’s Commissioner for Wales made the topic a central part of their manifesto for the 2021 election, challenging the parties to make the health and wellbeing of children and young people central to their manifestos as an urgent priority. Decades of strain on overstretched mental health services, combined with years of repeatedly telling ourselves that the crisis is not yet upon us, have finally taken their toll in Wales.
Highlighting the severity of the situation, one of the election’s key themes appears to be the question of how best to address this crisis and, in particular, the concept of a cradle-to-grave mental health support system, something alluded to across several of the 2021 manifestoes. With a number of parties promising investment in mental health services across the different stages of life, it’s clear that the awareness of the problem is there, even if unilateral agreement on how to begin addressing it is not. Reading through this year’s manifesto commitments is, in many ways, a surreal experience which conjures up visions of a strange kind of utopia in which the protection and preservation of our mental wellbeing is ingrained within every support system from birth to death. For Welsh Labour, Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, the gateway to this utopia seems to lie within the creation of dedicated mental health services in schools, colleges and education centres, all with a focus on providing mental health support to children and young people. Completing the life cycle, most of the party manifestos make reference to their ideas for improving mental health support in old age, with a focus on the toll taken by caring responsibilities and dealing with bereavement. What happens to mental wellbeing between these two pillars of youth and old age, seems a little more hazy.
Ideas to address the crisis are far-ranging and varied and yet, ideas achieve very little if they are not tangible. There are no shortage of promises, but the question is whether those pledges go far enough and whether they’re even feasible. Take, for example, some of the election promises made by a few of the main parties in Wales. For Welsh Labour the answer lies in introducing what they refer to as ‘in reach’ mental health services across all schools in Wales and the construction of a broad system of support and intervention. Meanwhile, Plaid Cymru have pledged to create fourteen new centres for youth mental health and the Welsh Conservatives have promised to increase funding for mental health services every year for the next four years, while also establishing two new mother and baby units to support perinatal mental health. The Liberal Democrats are also promising increased funding, committing to delivering 24/7 mental health support and increasing the share of NHS funding which is dedicated to mental health services. What is not entirely clear, is precisely how any of the parties intend to fund, or even staff, these initiatives, however worthwhile they may be.
As ever, what is not included speaks as loudly as the barrage of words which are listed in each of the manifestos. Let’s be frank, this year has been challenging for everyone’s mental health and a quick straw poll of family and friends supports the research that there are very few people who haven’t struggled with some aspect of their mental wellbeing since March 2020. Whether it’s loneliness, a sense of isolation from work or school, the challenge of being separated from loved ones, financial worries or relationship troubles, most of us have come up against at least some wellbeing issues as we’ve tried to navigate the cycle of lockdowns and social distancing. Across the arts sector, some of these issues have been particularly acute; freelancers and artists found themselves simultaneously bereft of much of the work they love, while also facing the loss of their livelihood. There was hope, ever so briefly, when the UK-wide furlough scheme was announced in the first wave of the pandemic, but many in the arts sector in Wales found themselves ineligible for the scheme.
A year on and those wounds still run deep. Prioritising mental health services is undoubtedly a first step towards healing those wounds, but each of the party manifestos could go further and say what they actually plan to do, in real terms, to support the mental recovery of those whose entire lives depend on a sector which has been utterly decimated for much of the past year. Yet in Wales Arts Review’s recent Spotlight Series, in which leaders of the main political parties were asked to outline their vision for the arts and culture sector, very few drew any explicit connection between their statement on arts and culture and their mental health policies. Only Plaid Cymru’s contribution briefly detailed a perceived connection between their proposed Freelancers Fund and the potential to use art to combat mental health problems in Wales. Therein, lies an enormous oversight.
The arts and culture sector in Wales has suffered massively over the past year, yet it also has so much to offer to the fight against a mental health crisis in Wales. A recovery for the arts sector would not only go some way towards rebuilding the livelihoods of practitioners, but also has the potential to go some way towards combatting the mental health crisis in Wales. Everything from arts therapy to projects which enable participants to explore and express their emotions has been affected by the pandemic, restoring these services to their full capacity would be a good first step, but the connection between mental health and the arts sector in Wales could go so much further.
Embedding a ‘cradle to grave’ approach to mental health could, and should, include drawing on existing arts and cultural opportunities and creating new ones. These opportunities can work alongside other plans, as a powerful component in improving health and wellbeing in Wales. No, the arts cannot fix everything. Yes, better support networks across schools, improved peri-natal mental health services and increased funding for mental health systems are all badly needed, but the arts has a part to play in supporting, endorsing and normalising discussions about mental health and wellbeing in Wales. It deserves to be a central part of the conversation as we move towards polling stations and beyond.
Party statements on their plans for arts and culture in Wales can be found in the Wales Arts Review Spotlight feature here. Full manifestos for each party are available on the party websites.
Dr Emma Schofield is a Wales Arts Review Senior Editor.