Local authorities across the country are leading the fight against COVID-19 and supporting their communities to stay well and safe through this most threatening of times for all of us. While the focus has necessarily been foremost on our physical health and safety, we know that councils are also concerned about the public’s mental health – and rightly so.
In a recent report we estimated that, nationwide, up to 10 million people will need support for their mental health as a result of the pandemic and its effects on our lives. Some 1.5 million of those are children and young people.
Centre for Mental Health (CMH) has supported councils to promote good mental health in their communities. In that time, we have worked with elected members who champion mental health, with public health teams who are leading local efforts to address mental health inequalities, and with social care, housing and other council services that support people living with mental health problems every day to enjoy better lives.
Both before and during the pandemic, we have seen how local authorities have stepped up to put mental health at the heart of their work. Supporting mental health in communities is relevant to a wide range of council roles and responsibilities. This includes essential services such as social care, implementing Care Act and Mental Health Act duties, and health visiting, school nursing and substance misuse services through public health. Housing services also have a critical role in relation to mental health – from enabling people to live independently to addressing rent and council tax arrears and tackling homelessness.
But it goes much further. Councils are responsible for assessing health needs in their communities, and some have found creative ways of using this to bring about change. Many use their powers to support voluntary and community organisations to lead local efforts to promote wellbeing. And local councils have opportunities as convenors of local partnerships, as influencers in communities (particularly elected members) and in their role supporting economic growth and planning. In all of these, by putting the public’s mental health at the heart of what they do, councils can – and do – make a significant impact, often working with limited resources.
Recently, CMH worked with the Local Government Association (LGA) to explore ways in which councils had sought to promote public mental health in their communities. These include Bristol City Council, whose Thrive Bristol programme is a 10-year strategy to boost wellbeing across the city. It includes the innovative Thrive at Work programme to encourage and enable businesses in the city to support wellbeing in their workplaces.
At Basildon BC in Essex, the authority has adopted a ‘health in all policies’ approach and seeks to maximise the health benefits of its many assets, such as shopping centres and parks. It has also drawn on national funding, from Sport England and the Arts Council, to set up projects with local community groups using physical activity and the creative arts to boost mental health.
Birmingham City Council’s public health team developed a plan to create a Mentally Healthy City. This has included extending its grants programme to boost organisations addressing mental health inequalities in the city, and a partnership with Warsaw City Council to share learning and improve support for Eastern European citizens. During the pandemic, the council has reached out to communities that have been most seriously affected by the virus, through the leadership of the city’s mental health member champion, Cllr Paulette Hamilton.
And in London, Lambeth LBC has worked with public sector organisations locally, including its acute hospital and mental health NHS trusts, to become Living Wage employers, as well as setting up a ground-breaking commission to tackle mental health inequalities facing Black communities in the borough and to take action to address them.
The councils we have worked with may have taken a wide range of approaches to promoting public mental health, but there are some key factors that seem to have helped them all. The first is to be clear that mental health really is ‘everyone’s business’, both within the council (across departments and portfolios) and in the wider community – including public services, businesses, faith groups and more – using multiple routes to promote wellbeing and tackle inequalities. A collaborative approach between partners is also important – bringing agencies and communities together for a common purpose, often with a strong sense of ‘place’ and an ambition to make it a good place to live in.
CMH will continue to work alongside councils and other partners to support better mental health for all and tackle inequalities. There is still more to learn, and room for innovation. By championing mental health together, we can create healthier and fairer communities, which benefits everyone.
Sarah Hughes is chief executive at Centre for Mental Heath