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'Mental health is about more than just talking'

Game of Thrones' Sophie Turner says we need to 'just talk' about mental health... and the rest, writes Natasha Devon

Natasha Devon, Oxbridge, Contextual offers, A level, Disadvantaged pupils, exam system

Last week, Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner spoke to US celebrity Dr Phil about her history of depression. She was widely praised for being candid, and said: “If people just opened up to their friends and family, it would be OK. All you have to do is to speak to someone, and you can get the help that you need.”

She’s not the first high-profile person to emphasise the need to "just talk". Indeed, my anecdotal experience tells me that it’s the response you’re most likely to get to the question “what can people do?” in an interview situation. 

It just so happened that Turner’s comments coincided with an emotional conversation I had with a close friend, whose former partner has recently taken his life. The response to his suicide from colleagues and casual acquaintances has been to storm social media with entreaties to "just reach out" to one another because "you never know who is suffering". 

“It’s making the people who really knew him feel like shit,” she told me. “Like he was struggling with no one to talk to.”

In fact, he had been incredibly open about his mental health struggles for years and my friend, as well as a number of trusted others, had had countless conversations with him about it. What was missing was an ability to access the psychiatric care he needed.

Protecting children's mental health 

Recovery generally requires three components: the will of the individual to get better; expedient, adequate and regular professional therapeutic care; and – yes – supportive friends, family and employers. Of course, being able to talk openly can play an important role in this, but if we suggest to young people that if they’re just honest about their mental health struggles help will automatically be forthcoming, we are lying to them.

In reality, people who cannot recover from mental illness fall into two broad categories – those who can’t engage with therapy and those who can’t access it. In the first instance, there can be all kinds of reasons why they’re unable to communicate, including learning difficulties, past trauma, current family dynamic or an unbreakable psychological reliance on addictive substances. In the second (and far more common) instance, the barriers are financial. Most of us aren’t celebrities and don’t have their bank balances. Private therapy isn’t an option for most people, and state-funded talking therapies have huge waiting lists. 

Child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs) are the worst affected – a recent study by the children’s commissioner revealed that whilst spending on mental health services has increased by 17 per cent overall, spending on children’s services has decreased in real terms across a third of the country. Thirty-seven per cent of local authorities are spending just over £5 per child, on average.  

When we lie to children, however well-intentioned, we break their trust, and that has an impact on the entire school community. We often tell pupils that if they report bullying, it will stop, for example. In my experience, they quickly realise that it’s not quite as simple as that and this prevents them "telling" after future bullying incidents.

Similarly, it would be irresponsible, as educators, to echo the celeb "just talk" narrative. We should instead say: "If you open up to me, I’ll listen and do everything I can to help you get any further help you need. It might take a while and it might not work first time, but I’ll support you, to the best of my ability, every step of the way." 

Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK

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