why the government has to do more in today's mental health crisis

Even if it hasn't affected us directly, we all have friends, family and loved ones who have suffered or are suffering from mental health issues, yet there's so much left unsaid and known. With the NHS and charities strained, Oscar Quine discusses how...

by Oscar Quine
16 May 2016, 10:00am

Let's call this friend Sam. I got to know him when I was 18. He was friends with friends of mine; we met through parties. Although we never became particularly close, we were on each other's radars. I always knew though that he was an incredibly impressive individual. Having excelled through school, he had been headhunted by a number of top firms while still at university. He was obviously destined for great things. Ultimately though, he made a decision that stood out for its bravery, turning all that down to work for himself on a personal project. He was the kind of person who, whichever way round he chose to do it, you felt confident he would do well.

Then, at a New Year's Eve party a few years later, through the nighttime whirl of intoxicants and cigarette smoke, Sam told me that he had tried to kill himself before Christmas. And that hadn't been his first suicide attempt.

How many Sams do you know? Sadly, I can count more than the one. There was the childhood friend who took his own life at 16. Casting the net of mental health issues beyond suicide, I can think of many more people I have known who have been affected. There was the friend who turned on his mum with a knife after a weed-induced psychotic episode. He was just one of a handful of schoolmates plunged into gruesomely dark places by early drug use.

These people came from a range of different backgrounds. I imagine their stories may strike a chord with some reading. Mental health issues are endemic in the UK, as they are in most western societies. Yet, as a nation we are failing to provide for those who fall foul of the various debilitating maladies that make up this umbrella term.

The stats speak for themselves. One in five adolescents will experience mental health problems in any given year. One in four adults will fall into the same sorry boat. And nearly six per cent of adults will attempt suicide at some point in their life. I myself - as I again imagine many reading this will have - have had to deal with issues around depression and anxiety. The symptoms became so difficult to bear at points that I approached my GP hoping for support in these moments of crisis.

The stats speak for themselves. Nearly six per cent of adults will attempt suicide at some point in their life.

I was shocked. Shocked by the absolute dearth of provisions available for someone who had come to their GP concerned they were suffering mental health issues that were both acute and, self-evidently by my presence before the doctor, that I felt were beyond my own control. I remember one particular instance when I was told by a stiff upper lip-type of chap that I shouldn't complain about the gut-wrenching feeling that I believed to be anxiety, but rather I should focus the nervous energy on productive outcomes. He thought that I was making a fuss and that I could recast the crippling sense of dread that ebbed at my core into something positive. Mind over matter, dear boy.

The previous coalition government pledged to plug the holes in the provision of mental healthcare treatment and the understanding around it. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg took on the cause personally and very publicly. The then-government even said that their "success will be measured by the nation's wellbeing, not just by the state of the economy". Along with this, in 2011, came a White Paper called Healthy Lives, Healthy People that was the first to promise to put responses to mental health on an equal footing with those to physical health.

So how successful was the Coalition Government, and the following Tory administration, in improving the atrocious under-provision of mental healthcare, especially to Britain's young people? The Coalition's promises were followed by a number of cash injections into mental health. In 2014, an extra £120m was pledged specifically for treatments. And earlier this year, £1bn was added to the pot allowing the government to boast that they had raised annual mental healthcare spending to £11.7bn - the highest ever amount.

Despite these headline figures and Clegg's early promises, it does however seem that more has been lost than gained in the downward blur of austerity. In February, the BBC reported that 29 of England's 53 healthcare trusts had actually suffered a decrease in mental healthcare funding.

The numbers that matter more than the financial sums are the waiting times. Often, in our society, which struggles to discuss mental health, people will only pick up the phone to their GP when they find themselves at an absolute crisis point. They feel they have entirely exhausted their own coping mechanisms and are in dire need of support. And yet, the British Medical Association recently slammed as "unacceptable" the fact that, in some areas, people have to wait up to 50 months to see a clinical psychologist. With these mind-boggling delays in mind, GPs will often recommend patients approach charities and gusts rather than hold out for NHS treatment. If this avenue bears no fruit (often down to the luck of where one lives) then the remaining option is to seek private treatment. For most, the hourly rate of £50-100 for talking therapy is prohibitive. The person who plucked up the courage to see their GP finds themselves back at square one.

In February, the BBC reported that 29 of England's 53 healthcare trusts had actually suffered a decrease in mental healthcare funding.

The government can, some would say, only do so much. The very English unease that comes with talking about our own mental health is half the problem. Thankfully, this attitude is changing. Generation Z are, in most instances, being brought up with a broader emotional self-awareness, and vocabulary to boot. But the ruling powers do still have a part to play in shifting public opinion. Many praise the long-running Drink Aware campaign for laying the foundations of this generation's characteristic take-it-or-leave-it attitude to alcohol.

However, the real reason the buck must stop with the NHS is because of cases like Sam's. His divulgence to me that New Year's Eve hit home hard - not just for the utter desperation of the act he confessed to. Outwardly, Sam was a success - but the truth is mental health is something that affects us all no matter how well we appear to be coping externally. We all need a safety net to catch us at our most desperate moments - unconditionally; no matter our caste, colour, creed or the cause of our turmoil. That is why, in the midst of the cuts currently ripping through Britain's public sector, it is particularly shameful that the Coalition Government's recognition that mental health deserves parity in its treatment with physical health, amounted to no more than empty promises and a few headline figures. This week, of all weeks, you would hope the government realises that its decisions on mental healthcare provision really are a case of life and death.

And if you do find yourself struggling to cope with whatever's whirring around in your head, the best advice I have to give is to talk. Talk to anyone you can: family, friends, the SamaritansMind or even your GP - you may very well find things in your area aren't all that bad. 

This week, Mental Health Awareness Week takes place in the UK, in an effort to increase the conversation around the much neglected subject. To coincide, all week i-D.co will share voices from the fashion industry and beyond, discussing their thoughts, feelings and experiences of suffering from mental health issues

To anyone looking for support, SamaritansMind and Rethink Mental Illness all offer helplines and advice to those in need.


Text Oscar Quine

Think Pieces
mental health awareness week
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