Prof Dame Sue Bailey, Co-Chair of Equally Well UK Day

The Covid-19 outbreak has made us face an unprecedented challenge to public health that few could have foreseen even a few months ago.

We had to postpone the annual meeting of the Equally Well collaborative in the UK as a result of measures we are all taking to reduce our risk of catching and spreading this virus. This was a great disappointment to all of us who were looking forward to getting together and marking Equally Well Day, hosted by The King’s Fund in London.

The event itself will be run again later in the year when it is sensible to get back together again in a room. In the meantime, we will continue to take forward our crucial work programme in our priority areas, and to start this off we are sharing blogs and videos from our presenters and taking this opportunity to reflect on how far we have come with Equally Well, and just how far we still have to go.

The programme for Equally Well Day focused on some of the most important aspects of physical health for people living with severe mental illness. One of these is smoking. Smoking rates among people with severe mental illness are almost three times the national average, and about a half of all deaths of people with a mental illness are from smoking-related illnesses. But there are signs that change is coming. The recent SCIMITAR+ trial, led by Equally Well members from York University’s Closing the Gap programme, made it clear that people with severe mental illness can benefit from tailored help to quit smoking. And NHS England’s Long Term Plan includes investment in smoking cessation for people using mental health services. If we can bring these two together, we will see a better future in this crucial area.

Healthy weight management for people with severe mental illness is another crucial but complex area of focus for Equally Well. This is one area of medicine where the insights of experts by experience will be crucial to create effective and sustainable solutions. That is why every aspect of Equally Well is coproduced by experts by experience in partnership with experts by profession, and we will keep working to find and as importantly share approaches that work.

Equally Well Day is a fantastic opportunity to reflect on what is going well as what is difficult. We know that Equally Well members across the country are taking action to address physical health inequalities: from increasing access to health checks, cancer screening and dentistry to improving opportunities for physical exercise and maximising incomes to enable people to live better all round. Sustaining these important initiatives has never been more important than now. With the reality of Covid-19, holistic help for physical as well as mental health is critical to save lives and reduce the added distress many are now experiencing day to day.

Equally Well Day is also an opportunity to look at inequalities that have not been so well explored. We know, for example, that there are higher rates of severe mental illness and use of the Mental Health Act among some Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. But there has been sparse attention to what this means for people’s physical health, and this is a debate we will open up.

Equally Well UK will continue to support and advocate for better physical health support for people with a mental illness. We know our work is only just starting, and we are delighted to have such a strong partnership in place to help us make a difference. While Covid-19 has stopped us meeting in person for the moment, it will not slow down our essential work and we will have important opportunities to learn from this time of crisis to help us make the long-term changes to make equal health possible over the decade to come. Together, we can make equal health a reality.