Mental Health: the diary of a broken mind
written by: Steve Pearson
Like most people I have during my life suffered moments of great stress. These life experiences that have taken me to the precipice; the crushing loss of my first child, the painful loss of my father to a stroke and quite recently the terrible loss of my dear brother, have all taken every ounce of the emotional strength and resolve I possessed. Fortunately for me, my personal reservoir has always just about been sufficient to precariously maintain my mental health. In particular, losing our child as a six and a half month old baby took my wife and I perilously close to falling down a very black hole, yet we came back out of the other side still with a bare smile in our pockets. However, when the great balance book of life eventually contains more debits than credits, in that time where a crisis overwhelms whatever reserves we have, we are left scrabbling for whatever help and support society can provide.
Too often in the Britain of today, the vital resource of mental healthcare falls woefully short of need. Beyond question, mental healthcare provision around the world differs enormously and someone in one of the poorer nations of the world might regard the complaints of the British churlish. In parts of Africa mental health issues are given a much lower priority than physical ailment and the fight for funding, as a slice of the whole, starts at close to zero. Everything is relative but as one of the wealthiest nations on earth, British public expectations of its healthcare systems are certainly high.
At this point it is worth noting that, the human component of mental healthcare in Britain more than rivals the best the world can offer, with a dedicated and highly skilled workforce working long, arduous hours spreading themselves as thinly as they dare, to meet and combat an overarching crisis of funding.
Funding is at crisis point in many areas of British healthcare and much recent focus has fallen on the piteous plight of people suffering the indignities of Britain's A &E departments, and on the increased waiting lists for elective surgeries. Though there has been some public heat around the state of mental healthcare funding, it is usually short lived. So why is there no sustained pressure around the funding of such a vital service?
An unhealthy stigma still surrounds the subject of mental health in Britain. If your mother or grandfather has had their hip operation cancelled for the umpteenth time, you are most likely to be all over social media screaming at the injustice, and may even court press and media coverage of their plight. However, change that cancelled hip operation to the unavailability of timely psychiatric treatment and the great many of those afflicted and affected inevitably fall silent. Those working within the cash starved service will of course always stand up and shout to the world that more is needed, but with clever manipulation of the media narrative, this politically charged activity too often gets painted as simple militancy. Widespread public pressure remains sadly absent.
Over the years celebrities such as Stephen Fry have added valuable publicity to the scant pool of public discourse by openly talking about their own personal struggles with mental health. It might seem that while we sit and watch and listen to those luminaries trying to kick down the barriers to open discussion that we may be on the cusp of ridding ourselves of this outdated stigma. Indeed, when Stephen Fry openly discussed wrestling with suicide, for some time the nation talked and the subject opened up like a flower, promising societal shift. Unfortunately, as before it was just noise that fell back into the background hiss. More recently the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s Heads Together charity have sought to move the public towards a more empathetic tone, yet little still seems to change.
What can we do? Stigma is a two sided coin. That day where someone realises they are suffering from a psychiatric issue, they can become their own bête noire, feeling that they are in some way weak and that they should just "pull themselves together", often reflecting what well-meaning friends and family, and even society has given them to think. Overcoming this self-doubt is about finding common community with others suffering similar issues through support groups, and is also about seeking and receiving treatment. However, it is also beholden upon society to view issues of mental health sympathetically.
I once saw a young lady in a city centre clearly in the depths of a serious episode. Around her, there were people offering a wide birth, others standing back with concern or disapproval, it was difficult to tell, while others laughed and smiled. Still others used mobile phones to film the scene, presumably before placing it on YouTube. Eventually an elderly lady led her into a shop, hopefully helping to get her the help she needed. The prevalent attitude of this "audience" serves as a distasteful sketch of stigma actually being born, where the weight of society sees mental health almost as a show. The drive to open up the subject for national discussion will always stall as long as sufferers fear a reaction they have likely seen many times before. Political pressure for change unfortunately always starts with the people rising up against the status quo, railing at an inequality or just deciding that enough is enough. We appear more likely to slavishly add to YouTube clicks as we sneer from the comfort of the sidelines. As long as the under-funding of mental healthcare in Britain remains a niche subject for those few prepared to put themselves in the spotlight, proper funding for the service will continue to be a nearly subject, and politicians will continue to talk flowers and offer weeds.