IF 2024 manifesto audit 4: mental health

IF researcher, Toby Whelton, looks at what the parties are promising on mental health ahead of the 2024 General Election

The mental health crisis

It was not long ago mental health barely featured on the political agenda, yet now mental health features thoroughly in nearly all the manifestos. While undoubtedly a good thing and the product of tireless campaigners, this increased concern is partly due to the fact that the UK has a mental health crisis that simply cannot be ignored.

In the UK, 1 in 6 people aged 16+ have experienced symptoms of a mental health problem within the last week. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), suicides have significantly increased for the third year in a row.

Mental health is an intergenerational issue with young people disproportionately affected. In 2023, 1 in 5 young people between 8−25 years-old had a probable mental health disorder. This has increased by 8% since 2017.

Britain’s mental health is at a crisis point and it is with these stakes in mind IF has audited the parties manifestos.

IF manifesto audit

In the full IF Manifesto Audit, we have applied a traffic light system to signal how intergenerationally fair we consider the various policy offers to be. We grade intergenerationally fair pledges as: “green”; “yellow” if intergenerationally neutral; “orange” if some progress has been made but more needs to be done; and “red” if intergenerationally unfair.

For mental health, all parties except Reform, have scored a green. The Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats (LibDems) and the Greens have all promised greater mental health provision in some form and this is the intergenerationally fair thing to do. Reform have largely ignored mental health, scapegoating social media and young people’s work ethic as the problem, thereby scoring them an “orange”.

Schools and young people

Half of all mental health conditions have started by age 14, so dedicating more resources to children in school is crucial. Diagnosing mental health conditions in the early stage of development is key to stopping mental illness affecting broader life outcomes, such as educational attainment and employability. The economic impact of not intervening early are enormous; IF’s research paper Costing Young Minds calculated having depression between the ages of 16 to 40 years old amounted to a fiscal loss of £2.9 billion per cohort.  Therefore, the Conservatives, Labour, Greens and LibDem plans to ensure every school employs a mental health professional should be applauded not only as morally right but economically prudent.

Equally, the Labour and LibDem parallel plans to build mental health hubs for young people is welcomed, as is the LibDem plan to join up young people’s mental health services up to the age of 25. The LibDems will also appoint a Cabinet Minister for Children and Young People, a promising step towards getting intergenerational equality enshrined in law, which the IF has called for over the past decade.


Ever-increasing waiting lists, staff-shortages and diminishing resources within the NHS, have inevitably affected mental health provision. There are currently 1.9 million people on the waiting list for mental health treatment in England. Between 2016/17 and 2022/23 the NHS mental health workforce rose by 22% yet the number of referrals to this service rose by 44% over the same period. Staff vacancies in mental health departments rose by 20%.

The array of offerings from all the parties to improve the NHS by decreasing waiting times, building more GP practices and recruiting more staff are all largely positives. Better still, some parties have made specific pledges to increase resources for mental health such as Labour’s aim to recruit an additional 8,500 NHS mental health staff and the Conservative’s offer to boost capacity for severe mental illness by 140,000 places. The Conservatives will also expand talking therapies by 50% while the Greens will ensure everyone can access mental health therapies within 28 days.

Work and mental health

Unfortunately, it is not all good news. The Conservatives plan to tighten disability benefits for mental health claimants, which they hope will push 424,000 people back into work. Reform, in more blunt terms, state that the answer to young peoples’ mental health issues is simply for more of them to work. While we acknowledge the spiraling number of benefit claimants since the pandemic must be addressed, weaponising mental health is not the means to do so. More likely, the increased number of disability claimants in recent years is a product of increasing poverty, crumbling public services and poor-quality jobs amongst disabled households.

Social media

Reform’s only other policy on mental health is the promise of an inquiry into the effects of social media on young people. The Greens also comment on the needs to tighten restrictions on social media, but this is complimented by other more comprehensive policies already discussed. The debate over social media is not really an intergenerational concern, but to blame social media entirely is to ignore the underlying causes of the current mental health crisis in young people.

ONS data reveals those on lower incomes are more likely to be depressed; research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows private renters, who are disproportionately young people, are twice as likely as homeowners to suffer from anxiety; university students’ mental health problems have tripled in recent years; and 55% of young people are worried about the effects of climate change. Of course, these statistics technically only prove correlation not necessarily causation, but they reveal the multitude of social and economic factors conspiring against young people to worsen their living standards, prospects and mental health.

While more mental health provisions is vital, to truly fix the mental health epidemic amongst the young, intergenerationally fair policy must be introduced across all areas of government.

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