A couple of weeks ago, we came together to “raise awareness” on World Mental Health Day. Like the years before, it heralded the launch of various campaigns and announcements by charities.
I’m not as vehemently anti-World Mental Health Day as some of my fellow campaigners. I like the fact that it always trends on Twitter and that every year I’ll see a few people on social media “coming out” about their own struggles. However, I do understand the counter-stance. We’d never have a “Physical Health Day” or, if we did, we’d assume it related to fitness and nutrition, rather than trying to shoehorn awareness of every single physical illness into 24 hours.
“Mental Health” covers such a broad remit. We all have a status of mental health because we all have a brain. You wouldn’t necessarily go to a doctor for a mental health issue if it was something like exam stress or being bullied. Equally, mental illnesses vary wildly in their nature and symptoms. Then there are the conditions which are related to mental ill health, in that they are closely correlated with mental illness, but no one is quite sure whether they belong in the discussion – like autism and ADHD.
Then, of course, there is the grandstanding. The celebrities and politicians who, desperate for a slice of the media pie, use this day to eclipse the work and experiences of those of us for whom this is a 365 day-a-year issue.
Never was this more pronounced than this year, when the theme for the day was “young people’s mental health in a changing world”. The government decided to host a “global summit” attended by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, to invite “key campaigners” to a “reception” at Downing Street and announce the appointment of a new “minister for suicide prevention”.
I want to preface this with a few disclaimers:
1. A number of the organisations involved in the summit, like Time to Change, are incredible.
2. I have a lot of time for Wills and Kate (they actually do their research on mental health and genuinely want to make a difference).
3. A minister for suicide prevention is, as an abstract concept, a terrific idea.
But here comes my big BUT.
The global summit was apparently an exercise to present Britain as being at the “forefront” of mental health treatment. What a joke.
Currently, only one in four children with severe mental health issues are able to access the care they need and many of those are being sent to in-patient units hundreds of miles away from home. We currently still spend 17 times more on adult mental health services than CAMHS, despite the average onset age for the most common mental health issues being 14. One in four girls and one in 10 boys under the age of 14 has self-harmed during the previous year. We have lost 500,000 mental health nurses since 2010 because of austerity. Perhaps most frustratingly, the government continues to refuse to ring fence mental health budgets, meaning that for every announcement about new funding, there’s a very good chance that money won’t make it to the people who need it, on the ground.
It’s noteworthy, then, that dissenting voices were notably absent from the summit, presumably because they’d draw attention to the above and embarrass Britain on a global stage.
The Downing Street reception was, as far as I can tell, attended primarily by bloggers, influencers and members of the cast of Love Island. One leading young person’s charity I spoke to told me that they had to "beg" for their ambassadors to be allowed in. A friend of mine (who is actually a magnificent online mental health campaigner, her inclusion seeming more accidental than deliberate) said that the prime minister’s speech was “very fluffy with no substance” and “more about telling us what we wanted to hear than giving any clear action points”. I’ll bet my favourite pair of Kurt Geiger’s that the words “parity of esteem” were used at some point.
And then we have the minister for suicide prevention, the role of which has gone to Jackie Doyle-Price. Ms Doyle-Price has, in fact, been the minister for mental health since 2017. Surprised? I was. She has been almost entirely absent from the landscape during her year in the role.
Furthermore, one wonders precisely how deeply she is prepared to look into the issue of suicide.
Suicide is a symptom, not a choice. It happens when pain exceeds resources for coping with pain. The chances of it happening are dramatically increased the longer a mental health issue is left untreated and unmanaged. Yet still, the government will not ring fence their funding. CAMHS thresholds are still so high that even a suicide attempt is sometimes not enough to guarantee a child expedient care.
The danger zone for men, in particular, dying by suicide is retirement age. Yet 90 per cent of suicides happen as a result of untreated depression or addiction and, in more than half of cases, these illnesses would have manifested before the age of 14. The issues that lead adults to crisis point usually begin when they are at school.
And what is happening in schools? We have a climate where 70 per cent of teachers have had to take time off work in the past year for a physical or mental health issue they attribute to the stress of their job. Where increased testing has led to a steep rise in anxiety and panic attacks. Where subjects we know have a therapeutic value for people at all points on the mental health spectrum – sport, art, music, drama – have been systematically devalued and defunded so that they’re being squeezed out of the curriculum.
That’s before we even look at poverty. Money doesn’t make you happy but having enough money so as you don’t worry about it is an essential component in good mental health. A total of 4.5 million children currently live in poverty in the UK, half a million of whom are reliant on food banks. Apart from anything else, with the NHS being so stretched, living in poverty makes getting help for mental illness almost impossible.
“Raising awareness” won’t solve any of these desperately urgent problems. Yet it seems the government will do literally anything to try and distract the public and avoid having to reconsider their policies or, heaven forbid, actually invest some money.
The problem is, mental health has now become so entrenched in pomp and ceremony that there are very few people who are prepared to say this publicly (on Wednesday my phone was lighting up constantly with messages from campaigners and charity leaders wanting to rant but swearing me to secrecy). I am one of a handful of exceptions. Watch this space.
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. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here