Published annually, the Health Survey for England monitors the general health of the nation.
It’s how we have a handle on who’s most likely to have undiagnosed diabetes or chronic kidney disease, whether we’re getting more obese as a nation, and it allows us to track levels of unmet need in older people.
Survey data like this is needed for measuring our world. Public policy is shaped by it: from identifying priorities and setting targets (like for blood pressure or salt intake), through to evaluating policy (such as measuring the effect of the smoking ban on second-hand smoke exposure).
That’s why it’s so striking that the government’s equivalent survey for mental health – the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey - happens only once every seven years. The forthcoming survey of child mental health, publishing this autumn, is the first such survey in fourteen years.
We need to monitor our national mental health more regularly
It’s brilliant that the Medical Research Council has invested ten million in mental health data platforms, with more to come. These platforms will draw insight from routine, clinical, and other existing health datasets.
Survey data can play a valuable part in this work – but only if that survey data is collected in the first place.
No matter how sophisticated analysis of routine data becomes, it can’t measure untreated and undiagnosed conditions, nor can it capture the wider context of people’s lives and their subjective experiences.
It took survey data to show that:
- Black people in England with anxiety or depression are less likely than white people to get treatment
- People in low-quality jobs tend to have worse mental health than those who have no job at all
- Discrimination on the grounds of sexual identity is linked to self-harm and substance dependence
- Factors linked to suicidal thoughts in older people differ can differ from those in younger people at risk
- People with lower IQ may be at particular risk of problem gambling
There’s widespread support for running England’s mental health survey programme more frequently. When NHS Digital consulted on how to improve the series the most common response – cited by 92% of respondents, including academics, charity sector representatives, and members of the public – was to make the survey more frequent.
That would be one way the government could show its commitment to parity between physical and mental health.