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Think Ahead launch: why mental health can no longer be ignored

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This evening Frontline will attend the launch of Think Ahead – the new two-year leadership programme for high-achieving graduates looking for a career in mental health social work. Think Ahead follows Teach First and Frontline in attracting new talent into challenging but rewarding public sector careers.
Care and Support Minister Norman Lamb MP has been the leading political figure in establishing Think Ahead. The Lib Dem MP has gained cross-party support for the project from the likes of Labour’s Lord Adonis and Conservatives within the coalition. Here Lamb explains why he was inspired to back the programme.
Why we need Think Ahead
“I was always very interested in the Teach First model and how successful it had been in attracting exceptional graduates into teaching. Then I read an article in The Times talking about Frontline attracting graduates into children’s social work. I was left thinking ‘yes, now what about adults.’ We started developing ideas and what emerged was that mental health may be an area that could benefit massively from the same sort of approach.
“You want a whole range of people [working in mental health social work] and you want to identify inspiring leaders for the future. This is not in any way denigrating those already working in mental health. You want people with experience of life and other professions, but I think it must make sense to attract the very best graduates from our universities into what is such an important profession.
“I believe fundamentally in the importance of social work, particularly in mental health where you don’t want an overly medicalised model. You want a mix of the medical interventions but also, critically, the social interventions.”
A mental health mission
“I’ve long believed in the importance of fighting for those who suffer mental ill-health who, to be blunt, are too often let down by the system. It’s been too easy to shut the door on this. Until now the media hasn’t really focused attention on mental health, or indeed in the past on child protection, but I think all that’s changing – I think mental health’s moment has come.
“Thankfully, the media is taking notice and joining in the campaign. The horrors that have been exposed in the abuse of children but also for people who suffer from mental ill health has led to the public taking notice and recognising that in a civilised society you cannot tolerate these failures. They have to be confronted and I think it’s all changing quite radically.”
Progressive thinking and best practice
“The Think Ahead programme is embracing progressive thinking. There’s been a lot of work in exploring best practice and taking on board the work of leading thinkers. I think because they’ve been open to learning and moulding the strongest possible programme, people have come on board with it in a way that I find very exciting. I want the learning from this whole exercise to help across the board.
“[To any doubters] I would say ‘give it a chance’ and look at the way in which Teach First has brought into teaching a whole cadre of new graduates – very capable people going into what is one of the most importance parts of public service. This is another critically important area and the potential to receive better results for people is enormous. We’ve made the investment which I believe is necessary in mental health, but there is nothing inconsistent with saying that there are many excellent people in social work yet that it makes sense for the future to attract great people.”
The importance of innovation
“The need to innovate cannot be overstated. We face an existential challenge in terms of maintaining excellence in public services and indeed confront areas where public services fall short. Yet we have extreme pressures on resources so we have to find ways of using public money with the greatest effect. We must always be open-minded about how we can do things better.
“The state has a vital role to play. I believe very firmly in the enabling state, but that doesn’t mean that the state has to do everything. Sometimes charitable organisations, social enterprises and mutuals can play a vital part and can reach areas that others can’t – so I think this is potentially a rich area of collaboration that can lead to great results.”
Norman Lamb will speak at Think Ahead’s launch tonight (Monday 16 March).

Interview by Joe Jervis.

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