Nicola Sturgeon's government should prioritise Scotland's mental health emergency over independence – Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP

On Monday, a national campaign was launched by those impacted by a public health problem that is noticeably more acute in Scotland.

By Alex Cole-Hamilton
Wednesday, 2nd June 2021, 4:55 am

They are the families of those who have taken their own lives after trying and failing to secure help from mental health services in the Scottish NHS.

Luke Henderson – the partner of one of the spokespeople for the campaign, Karen Mckeown – hanged himself after trying to get medical help eight times in the week before he died.

A petition to urgently review mental health services was lodged with the Scottish Parliament in 2018, but Holyrood’s petitions committee closed it down stating that it felt the government was undertaking that work. Three years later and Karen feels like nothing has changed.

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For years, Scotland has outpaced the rest of the UK in the number of people who die by suicide and that gap is widening. It is the leading cause of death for men under the age of 50 and while waits for mental health support increase, so too do the numbers of people resorting to that desperate and devastating final act.

You’d think that in the light of this reality, the First Minister would have kept the kettle boiling on this with dedicated ministerial attention. Instead, her recent reshuffle has seen the vital and substantial issues of mental health and social care conflated into one junior ministerial role. With the flagship ‘National Care Service’ Bill coming over the horizon, you can bet which brief will play second fiddle in that department.

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That dilution of government attention on this vital issue is symptomatic of how far from what really matters this government’s attention has drifted.

A minister, rather than a Cabinet Secretary, has been given responsibility for mental health along with social care reform (Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA)

At the start of her reshuffle, the First Minister signalled a welcome change in tone and in direction. Her first act was to create a ministerial office dedicated to the national recovery from Covid-19.

But that was immediately undermined by her appointment of a Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution in Angus Robertson, who exists first and foremost to advance the cause of independence.

The government have stated that his role covers Europe as well. But the impact of Brexit will be felt by and dealt with in every ministry established by the First Minister, so it should, by necessity become everyone’s problem now. So, let’s accept this for what this is.

When Mr Robertson lost his seat at Westminster, he was appointed to lead an independence-supporting think tank. With his appointment to government in this role, it feels as if the work of that organisation has been taken into public ownership.

Important questions face this country over the coming years, on suicide rates and mental health services, on the drug-deaths emergency, climate change and educational attainment, but for the Liberal Democrats, the answer to none of those lie in tired old arguments about currency, borders or another referendum. We believe there should be not one minute of either ministerial or civil service time afforded to such a portfolio.

If there was space at the Cabinet table, then it should have been filled by a Cabinet Secretary dedicated to dealing with Scotland’s mental health emergency. The families of those lost to suicide, who were so comprehensively failed by the system, deserve nothing less.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western

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