Our Politics Editor, Henry Roberts, offers a much-needed response to those who denounce the ‘mental health crisis’ as that which is not worthy of anything but our utmost concern, attention, and brain power.
‘Mental health crisis’. A phrase that has started to appear a lot in the media lately. In publications across the political spectrum, the words ‘mental health crisis’ have been written time and time again. And for good reason. From an increase in female suicide rates, to the neglected stigma of male suicide, to cuts in public funding exasperating the whole problem, mental health plays a huge role in our lives and it has never received so much coverage.
So what exactly is the problem? Despite receiving so much coverage, people are still largely in the dark about mental health. It’s a problem not always seen. This has led some to believe that it is a made up problem; a problem that doesn’t exist. We should stop complaining. We should just ‘man up.’ This is false.
Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. Three quarters of those who commit suicide in the UK are men. Suicide rates of young women are at their highest in twenty years. The Metropolitan police received a phone call related to mental health every five minutes in 2016. It is thought that this rise in contacting the police is the result of the NHS being unable to cope with the scale of the problem. Between 2010 and 2016, the number of mental health nurses working for NHS England fell by 15%. Help is needed and our public institutions are unable to sufficiently provide it. People are suffering and the NHS is failing. This is the mental health crisis.
The problem is partly political. 2010 was, of course, the year the Tories first came to power, initially in coalition with the Lib Dems. The Conservatives in Downing Street have caused a decline in public services. Failure to adequately fund our services has led to an increase in problems. Plus, since there is a substantial link between mental illness and economic inequality according to a World Health Organization study, it’s not just health policies that are to blame. Tory economics generally add to the pressures of the mental health crisis.
The phrase itself may appear problematic. Of course, there has been an increase in awareness lately, as well as in cries for help. But to say there is currently a ‘mental health crisis’ may imply that this is a new problem. A crisis is something new, something that did not exist before in the immediate past, and something that can be solved before normality returns. Mental health may seem like a new problem, amplified by social media, austerity, and our young people not having to fight wars; a 21st century problem, and one our grandparents and their grandparents did not have to suffer.
This is not the case. Undeniably, some facets of today’s world have made the problem worse.
We’ve never been more socially connected than we are today, yet we so frequently feel lonely. We are made aware so often of other people’s lives: their successes; their triumphs; their romances; their bodies; their fun; their existence being irrefutably better than ours. Social media has been countlessly cited as a major cause of this increase in mental illness, including by the head of the Mental Health Foundation. This is surely true. But we mustn’t let this be the only factor mentioned in the conversation, and thus allow an older generation, sceptical of even the existence of certain mental illnesses, believe that the problem can be resolved if we millennials all simply deleted our Facebook accounts. We mustn’t be told to ‘man up.’
Mental illness is historic. Depression, to take just one example, was known as ‘melancholia’. It was represented in literature and art. It is a shackle as old as human history. However, mental illness is not something just for those destined to the madhouse or a Hogarth painting. It is not an intrusive plague reserved for just a chosen few, something to which the rest of us are immune. Some are naturally more prone than others. And some, tragically, suffer much more deeply than others.
But we shouldn’t see mental health as an absolute or relative concept. Just because one suffers deeply doesn’t mean another should ignore their own problems in fear of appearing weaker or insensitive in comparison. And one should not see mental illness as an absolute, something someone either has or does not have. Some who have lived perfectly healthy lives develop depression after the death of a parent. The brain is a part of the body. We are all susceptible to its vulnerabilities.
There is indeed a problem. The problem is not new, but societal conditions have led to this aptly named ‘crisis’. It’s a crisis we are all a part of in some way and it’s one we certainly need to talk about. However, words are not enough. Writing articles is not enough; nor is reading and sharing them. Of course, greater awareness is always vital. But the statistics listed above can be found time and time again in all sorts of publications. Most of us know the facts already and are aware of the problem. We were rightly shocked when we first saw them. But now what? Mental illness will always exist in some way, but the current crisis in how we deal with it must prove ephemeral.
We can all do things to help. We can all offer support to a friend, and ask them if they’re doing okay, even if the friend seems okay, but is a little quieter or more withdrawn than usual. Mental health is not always visible.
That said, there are things our government can and should be doing. An increase in public spending, not just a redistribution of existing funds, is required to help alleviate the pressure on our services. People need to have professionals who are accessible. People need to know that it’s okay to talk to someone at any time; it’s not a provision reserved just for those on the edge of suicide. If people don’t talk about their problems, their problems may get worse. People need to have support available to them at all times. We all have a right to timely and effective help. We don’t always have somebody available to us, and being told to ‘man up’ or that our problems don’t exist or are just cries for attention are more than unhelpful. They are dangerous and disrespectful and vile.
We all also have our part to play. Words matter, but so too does action. We need to talk about the crisis, but our words need to be realised into effective change. Change is required on every level. On how we talk about mental health, how we talk to each other, and in our political discourse as well as deeds. If we change our words but not our actions, the words are rendered meaningless.
There is a mental health crisis. The way we think and discuss and act towards mental health needs to change. It will save lives.