The Wellbeing Budget: How mental health could be tackled from the top down

Guest post by Ed Syers

It’s been a month of political confusion in the United Kingdom. Lost in the crowd of uncertainty was a party pledge that could, if implemented, be the most radical step towards fighting mental health issues ever seen.

At their annual party conference in Bournemouth, held under the shadow of Brexit confusion and a prorogued parliament, the Liberal Democrats introduced their ‘wellbeing budget.’

The idea is simple. Every spending decision made by the party, and every new law they propose, would be assessed on the impact they have on wellbeing and happiness. It wouldn’t just be about growing the economy, but about improving people’s lives.

They aren’t the first to propose such an idea. In May, New Zealand announced the “world’s first” wellbeing budget, which included billions of dollars worth of investment into mental health services and child poverty prevention. It arrived to widespread praise, albeit mixed with a hint of scepticism. Doesn’t it sound too good to be true?

Maybe it’s an empty promise. After all, the chance of the Lib Dems forming a government in the UK is low, as is the prospect of their budget ever reaching the Treasury, so this announcement is an easy political win.

But can something be said for the idea? Will it catch on? And more importantly, will it work?

What is a wellbeing budget?

Countries judge their success based on their GDP, or Gross Domestic Product. That is, the total value of all the goods and services in that country. The target of every budget is to grow their GDP and strengthen their economy. 

New Zealand changed that in May 2019. Their budget promised to judge their growth not just on GDP but on the happiness of their people. They acknowledged that growing the economy is pointless if it’s not improving people’s lives, and that a happier, healthier workforce is a more productive one.

Further to measuring their growth differently, New Zealand’s Labour-led government has promised to back it up with record spending in social areas like mental health, homelessness and child wellbeing.

Is it working?

New Zealand announced the budget in the backdrop of slower economic growth and rising national debt.

That won’t change overnight. In any case, judging a wellbeing budget on its economics is missing the point entirely. More specific figures, such as homelessness and child poverty, will be watched closely.

But the real question is one that has divided psychologists for years. How do you measure happiness?

The bottom line is that the success of this budget won’t be evident for a while yet. It’s a wait-and-see game. 

Why isn’t everyone doing this?

The policy is not without its critics. The country’s opposition party argue that it does nothing to put money into the pockets of most families or lower their cost of living. 

And cost may be the biggest stumbling block. Some estimate that New Zealand will have to fork out $26billion in extra spending if they’re to follow through with their promise. 

Social spending doesn’t offer a quick return, and with Jacinda Ardern’s coalition having seen economic growth slow by 0.8% at the time of the budget announcement, sceptics are wondering how their country plans to foot the bill.

We may not see the fruits of New Zealand’s pioneering policy for some time, but the fact that a country is willing to commit so much to the cause must be seen as a positive. If it blazes the trail for other countries to follow then even better.

But words are easy. Are we on the verge of a new wave of investment in wellbeing? Or is this just another example of style over substance?

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