Does ‘parity of esteem’ sound like a slick term dreamed up by politicians and civil servants? That’s because it is.

But behind this seemingly nebulous phrase, first mentioned in a government mental health report in 2011, is a vital concept: the idea that mental and physical health should be valued equally.

There’s no getting away from the fact that mental health provision in the UK falls well short of this standard, despite platitudes from ministers and the very best efforts of overstretched health workers. For those in crisis, services remain dangerously lacking.

That’s why the NHS has outlined a new set of targets to try to address the issue. These include anyone presenting at A&E with a severe mental health condition –such as severe anxiety and depression, psychosis, a schizophrenic episode or suicidal ideation – being seen within an hour.

Elsewhere, community-based teams will need to see urgent referrals within 24 hours, while a four-week target has been set for those who go directly to community services for help, whether they’re adults, carers or children.

For Simon Gunning, CEO of suicide prevention charity the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), this new approach is welcomed, but needs to be backed up by serious money and training if it’s going to work.

“This is a small step in the right direction,” he says, “but more must be done if we are to tackle chronic shortages in mental health provision head on.

“A huge number of people have developed new mental health problems since the start of the pandemic, or had existing problems worsen. Some groups have been hit particularly hard, including young people.

“However, government cuts to mental health services, mirrored by a 25 per cent reduction in mental health beds since 2010, show that unless we increase funding for front line mental health services, meeting waiting time targets will be difficult to implement.”

It’s a view that’s echoed by therapist Ruth Allen:

“Unless it is backed up with people who can actually provide ongoing support, and that they are trained and paid like normal providers of healthcare, then I suspect it will be hollow promises, which we’ve heard before.”

Where to get help in a mental health emergency


Daily phone line, open 5pm to midnight – 0800 585858 – plus online chat tools.


24-hour phone line: 116123. Email (responses within 24 hours) and Samaritans self-help app.


Words: Joe Minihane