Tackling mental health

I’ve just read my annual school magazine and it has compelled me to want to publically give three cheers to a woman called Emma who shared details of the mental health problems she has experienced since her teenage years, and the impact stigma has on her ability to lead her life as she would like. I admire Emma’s bravery in talking out about her experience because sadly the reality is that the majority of people with mental health problems do continue to experience serious, and frequent discrimination, whether that be during their search for work, accessing services or buying travel insurance.

We need the courage of people like Emma to talk about their problems because it’s only by sharing, exploring, and investigating mental ill-health that we are going to be able to make the necessary progress to improve not only the lives of the one in six people in the UK who will experience mental ill-health but those too of their families and carers who have to witness the anguish of their loved ones.

Mental health is a subject about which I care passionately. For over 10 years I’ve been working alongside public health professionals to improve mental well-being amongst the general population. And then in 2009 my professional and personal lives collided when my mother, at the age of 61, developed severe depression and tragically made the fateful decision to end her own life. Since then I have sought every opportunity to increase awareness, challenge attitudes and raise funds through a wide range of different initiatives with which I am now involved, including being the Founder of a suicide prevention charity, a Trustee of a mental health research charity and an advisor to various government programmes.

As Emma notes, mental health problems are surprisingly common and their impact is huge. Many people manage their conditions alone, but for those that do seek help a conservative estimate suggests it accounts for over 30% of GP consultations, and 14% of the NHS budget. The reduced life expectancy of those with mental health problems is said to be as great as 20 years for men and 15 years for women because of a host of associated complications. And the wider costs to the national economy in terms of welfare benefits and lost productivity at work amount to some £77 billion a year.

I believe there are three key challenges that need to be urgently addressed to lessen the devasting effect of mental ill-health.

Firstly, we need much more significant and accelerated progress to improve our scientific understanding of the issue. Ultimately, we must hope that we might learn how to prevent mental ill-health altogether; until then we need to find more successful ways to cure or treat it; and become much better at managing and mitigating the symptoms (including reducing the often debilitating side-effects of prescribed medication).

We’re a long way off achieving the breakthroughs that are needed. Scientific research of mental ill-health is woefully underfunded. For example, the Medical Research Council spent just 3.4% of their total 2009/10 £758.2 million spend on mental health research. A proportion that has barely changed despite the growing incidence of the problem.

Furthermore, even if more money were to become available, there is a dearth of academics and clinicians dedicating themselves to the field of mental health study.  We urgently need younger people to be attracted into pursuing their studies and developing their careers in this area of medical research. Without it, the absence of both breadth and depth of top minds is going to make exploring and solving the complex problems of mental ill-health unattainable. Please Bedales do whatever you can to build the appeal of mental health applied science to your budding future researchers and medics.

Secondly, we need to take steps to mitigate the scale of the problem that is facing our children and future generations. Currently, one in ten young people are experiencing mental health-problems, and the incident is rising so fast that it’s expected to reach one in six by 2020. The ever-increasing pressures of growing up today mean that half of all lifetime mental health problems start by the age of 14.

To improve children’s well-being, both whilst they are young and when they become adults, society needs to accept our responsibility to building mental health resilience building. Humans have the capacity to face, overcome and ultimately be strengthened by life’s adversities and challenges. These resilience techniques are not something that you either have, or do not have, they are learnable and teachable. This shouldn’t be focused on those who have already demonstrated mental health issues, or who are thought to be vulnerable, but instead requires a whole population approach to practising the management of stressful events as you never know who, when and how the techniques needs to be employed.

Resilience building is not a quick fix to solving everyone’s mental health problems, but it is a positive, hopefully and increasingly evidence based approach to improving well-being. I would hope that Bedales, celebrated masters of inspiring children to engage with life and learning, recognise this and are leaders amongst schools in equipping young people to develop the coping strategies to deal with difficult circumstances.

Thirdly, and probably the least glamorous of these challenges, and far and away the most difficult, will be the revolution of kindness that is required for us as individuals, and also as a society, to show empathy, understanding and inclusion of those facing mental distress.

Sadly, too many misconceptions abound about mental health, such that people with mental health issues are attention seekers, that they bring it onto themselves, that they are violent and a risk to others. This ignorance breeds misunderstanding and fear and acts as a barrier preventing people extending basic compassion and care.

It’s to address this that the voice and experience of people like Emma are so vital. By humanising and normalising the experience of mental ill-health it helps people to understand how the illnesses can manifest themselves, it encourages rather than prevents social contact, and tackles stigma and discrimination. By having a more supportive environment I hope too that it will reassure more individuals to talk about how they are feeling and to seek help. And from every shared story we can learn more about the condition, treatment, management techniques and in so doing build wider strategies and tactics to help others.

I believe that talking can save lives. For perhaps if my mother didn’t have grossly out-dated notions of psychiatric care, shaped by the pre-1960s images and stories that are still peddled in novels and films, then she may have been less fearful of any prospect of in-patient treatment and less desperate to ensure that it would never happen to her.  If an old student acquaintance had felt more confident that she wouldn’t be judged about her self-harming then she might have talked to her GP rather than taking a lethal overdose. If the City executive hadn’t been brought up to believe that you don’t share your problems and that stress is ‘just’ a sign of weaknesses then he wouldn’t have thrown himself in front of a train.

For me, even one life saved has got to be worth the fight to ensure that mental ill-health doesn’t stay in the shadows of people’s lives but is able to be talked about, shared and solved together.