IMPACT20: The National Conversation Report: An interview with Paul Farmer

Paul Farmer

The pandemic will leave a deep and lasting scar on the mental health of millions of people in the UK. As a nation, we must emerge more compassionate, collaborative and inclusive, says the Chief Executive of mental health charity Mind.

On the importance of mental health

What does mental health mean to me? One word: everything.

On the impact of COVID-19

During the pandemic, we’ve really kept an eye on three groups of people. First, those with existing mental health problems who, broadly speaking, have got worse. Second, those at risk of developing mental health problems, many of whom have slipped from being “at risk” to being unwell. And third, the general public who, by and large, have coped well and taken steps to look after their mental health. We think that’s partly down to support from local communities and employers, but also the longer-term work we’ve all done to raise awareness about mental health in the wider population.

On supporting staff

Smart, responsible employers recognise that staff who feel valued and supported tend to be more productive and are less likely to take time off sick or leave the organisation. Employers need to help people thrive at work, be able to spot the signs when people are struggling with their mental health, and have a very clear pathway to support those who are unwell. The Mental Health at Work Commitment sets out six really simple actions that any organisation can follow to improve and support the mental health of their people.

On digital exclusion

We’ve seen lots of mental health resources moving online – and that’s a huge opportunity. Side by Side, our online community, is now accessed by thousands of people every day, for example. But it’s really important that we don’t see digital as the only option. Many people struggle to access digital services. They can’t afford the data. They don’t have good enough Wi-Fi or broadband. Or they don’t have the technological skills to access online services. So while there’s an opportunity for digital inclusion, there’s also a risk of digital exclusion. We should now be able to offer people a choice of service.

On wellbeing initiatives

I love the “Our Frontline” initiative. For the first time, we united with other mental health charities – Samaritans, Shout, Hospice UK and The Royal Foundation – to provide round-the-clock mental health support for NHS workers, carers, the Blue Light emergency services and key workers. That kind of initiative would usually take six months to launch; we did it in six days. Since May, we’ve had well over 150,000 contacts. It’s a great example of collaboration and acting quickly.

On government support

I think there are opportunities to make a lasting impact on mental health at a legislative level; changes to the rules around sick pay, for example, or tax breaks for employers who are offering wellbeing services. Fundamentally, the Government has a vital role to play in sustaining investment in the NHS and cross government mental health work, and in its role as an employer.

On remote working

People have enjoyed the reduced travel, the flexibility, and the chance to spend more time at home with their families. But we’ve also seen some real challenges. People have struggled with the blurring of work and life; of having an “office” on the same table as where they eat their dinner. That’s why, at Mind, we kept our offices open.

On diversity

We have failed people from black communities when it comes to mental health, and we all have a job to do.. Policies have to go beyond the creation of a whole load of new forms. We need to get to a place where everyone has equal opportunity, regardless of who they are and where they come from, and that requires behavioural change from the very top of organisations. We must recognise our unconscious biases and consider the mental health consequences of decades of stigmatisation and discrimination.

On the future

I think the future is bright. The pandemic has sparked a more compassionate style of leadership in organisations, a willingness to be a bit less competitive and to work together for a single purpose. And that lays the groundwork for better collaboration across the public, private and voluntary sectors.

To create a more inclusive society, I would...

...want to see a really wholehearted commitment to embedding mental health across policy, across workplaces, across schools and higher education. We need to go from promises to action. That’s the next chapter.