Bryony Gordon How to make it to the end of Sober October
People are ready to talk – but there are no resources to help, when they do
You would have to be living under a rock to not know that this week it was World Mental Health Day. The Government put on a Global Ministerial Mental Health Summit on the banks of the Thames, inviting politicians and activists from all over the planet, in an attempt to position the UK as a world leader in mental health. It’s not hard to position yourself as a world leader in mental health when, in many countries, the mentally ill still get chained to beds and locked away in institutions that would struggle even to be classed as asylums.
Theresa May announced that there would be a minister for suicide prevention, and that children would now have their mental health assessed in schools from the age of four. Meanwhile, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said again and again that he would make sure that mental health had true parity of esteem with physical health. We’ve been hearing that one now for years, as if saying it repeatedly might somehow work as an incantation and, suddenly, magically make it true.
Sadly it doesn’t. For that, budgets need to be ring-fenced, waiting list standards need to be introduced, and ill children need to stop being told they’re not ill enough to qualify for immediate care. Try to imagine an NHS that only took patients with the most advanced cancer, or ones who had been triaged from serious car accidents. Everyone else must go home and wait for six months. If they’re lucky.
Of course, these huge global mental health events and international days are crucial in that they provide charities and activists with an opportunity to highlight to the public much needed change. I take part in them every year, like an earthworm dug up once every October and then again the following May, for Mental Health Awareness Week, by companies and brands keen to spread our shared message that it’s OK to say, and it’s good to talk, and that you do not have to be ashamed of the stuff in your head.
This is important, because we know that nobody has ever got better from a mental illness by not talking about it. But simply saying it and being able to say it to a supportive friend or family member is not a solution in itself, as I suspect Theresa May hopes it might be. People are ready to talk. They just find that when they do, there are no resources available to help them.
A suicide prevention minister is a good thing, of course – one that has joked about jumping off Beachy Head, as Jackie Doyle-price did in 2014, less so.
It is telling that shortly after announcing it, Theresa May used the phrase “commit suicide” not once, not twice but three times during Prime Minister’s Questions. To many, this may seem innocuous. To groups such as the Samaritans, which have long campaigned to an end to such language because it harks back to a time when suicide was a crime, it is not.
It is well known that one of the smallest, simplest acts of suicide prevention is changing the language around it, making ourselves sensitive not just to those who have been bereaved by suicide, but also to people who are living with suicidal thoughts that are, through age-old language, deemed somehow sinful or criminal. You would hope that a Prime Minister who took mental health seriously would know this.
Similarly, it is great that children will have their mental wellbeing assessed. But we already know that there are thousands of very ill children out there who are being failed by Britain’s child and adolescent mental health services, as was exposed last month in Sean Fletcher’s excellent Panorama episode, Kids in Crisis (it is on the BBC iplayer now, should you want to watch it). Getting psychiatric care for his extremely unwell son required Fletcher and his wife to have a sort of breakdown, too.
An investment in mental health is, to many, a complete no-brainer. Poor mental health has serious ramifications that can be seen in our prisons, in unemployment figures, and even in the obesity crisis.
Brexit may seem like the biggest issue of our time, but the true crisis facing our nation – the lack of care given over to its mental health – is being treated by the Government like some sort of trendy tick-box exercise. This week, it felt as if Theresa May couldn’t even be bothered to give an entire day over to the cause – perhaps half of it, at most. She would do well to remember that, for 16million people in the UK, it is World Mental Health Day every day.
Mrs May: wrong to say ‘commit suicide’