How prioritising emotional health could help solve the mental health crisis


Amidst growing pressures on our public services, politicians across the spectrum are taking a renewed interest in prevention. Keir Starmer has called for an end to short-term ‘sticking plaster’ politics and a shift towards long-term solutions to society’s problems. 

When it comes to mental health, the need for prevention has never been more urgent. We have seen reported mental health problems, particularly among young people, increase at a concerning rate in recent years and in 2022, NHS mental health services received a record 4.6 million referrals

The impact of mental health problems on the economy is just as stark. Official forecasts predict that spending on disability benefits will rise by £17 billion a year by 2030, with mental health conditions being the most expensive conditions contributing to these costs

The government’s main response to this has been to pile more and more resources into reactive services, as shown by a strategy that disproportionately focuses on the NHS like the NHS Long Term Plan.  Demos has estimated that if recent trends continue, NHS England spending on mental health will reach £37.6 billion by 2040, overtaking the £32.4 billion that the UK government currently spends on defence

Yes, more investment in mental health care is welcomed and undoubtedly vital for those who are already suffering from severe mental health problems. But at the same time, we need long-term solutions that will better prevent mental health issues from arising in the first place. 

The government is making some efforts to do this, for example, through The Major Conditions Strategy which addresses prevention of mental ill-health alongside several physical health conditions. However, the mental health aspect of the strategy currently appears to be too narrow in scope to truly address the complex mental health and wellbeing challenges the nation is facing.

Emotional health as a critical protective factor for mental health

As argued in Demos’ new report Strong Foundations: why everyone needs good emotional health – and how to achieve it, we need a stronger preventative approach to mental health that must include a focus on our emotional health. Emotional health refers to the underlying assets and skills that impact our thoughts, feelings and behaviours, influencing how we navigate our emotions and relationships with others. 

These assets can help promote the foundations of good mental health by enabling individuals, families and communities to build resilience and supportive relationships – these are critical protective factors for mental health. A study by the Early Intervention Foundation found that the strength of someone’s emotional skills during childhood is an important predictor of their mental health in adult life.

Our emotional health is significantly impacted by the environments we are immersed in on a daily basis. Experiences of loneliness, unhealthy relationships, poverty, trauma and toxic workplaces can make it difficult for people to develop their emotional health assets as well as be risk factors for mental ill-health. Collective approaches to developing good emotional health are therefore just as important as individual approaches.

Achieving good emotional health for all

To achieve good emotional health for all, we need strategic and long-term planning that addresses the psychosocial factors that can influence people’s emotional and mental health.

To do this, the government must re-commit to a standalone, cross-government mental health and wellbeing plan. Having a standalone plan to address the UK’s mental health and wellbeing challenges will ensure that the social determinants and root causes of mental ill-health are adequately addressed.

A preventative, asset-based approach that recognises the importance of good emotional health for empowering people, families and communities to look after their mental health should form the basis of this plan.

It’s also crucial that the government addresses the foundational factors that influence people’s emotional and mental health. This should include measures to directly reduce poverty, such as incomes and benefits payments, and efforts to strengthen social capital and social networks locally.

To directly enhance the nation’s emotional health assets, the government should invest in evidence-based training and programmes on emotional health that can be delivered and tailored to a range of settings including workplaces, families, educational institutions and in local communities. It’s important that, where possible, this training is ongoing and delivered collectively.