The recent pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis have caused a severe deepening of a mental health crisis that was already facing the nation. It is astonishing that mental health has not featured at all in the Conservative Party’s conference. Contrast this with the commendable motion put forward by the Young Liberals on “Taking a stand on mental health!”
Dr Adrian James, Head of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, in reference to mental health, notes that we are faced with a “threat of pandemic proportions” due to the deepening cost of living crisis, whilst earlier Jo Bibby, Director of Health at the Health Foundation, citing ONS data in May last year noted that depression rates had doubled since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and forewarned of a growing mental health crisis in the UK. Mental health charity Mind has reported since 2017 that “approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year”.
Trying to make mental health a political priority can be hard, yet it is necessary. Whether directly or indirectly we will all be affected. It is essential that those of us with lived experience of mental health issues speak out, raise awareness and help eradicate stigma.
My personal journey, which at times resembled a Sisyphean struggle and more often has proven an arduous marathon, has seen me receive both hospital and outpatient support, through crisis management, diagnosis, stabilisation and re-claiming normality. I have had occasion to both appreciate the available service and the personal efforts made by many, but also to notice the shortcomings of a system at breaking point, which is not always fit for purpose, and which often relies on individual altruism or family support as a substitute to state or community structures.
All too often young people, in particular, fall through the cracks of the mental health system, myself included. The signs of me having a mental health disorder were there much earlier in my teenage years when I first experienced major depressive episodes but was unable to receive any real support as the CAMHS waiting lists were over a year and not much support was offered to me at the time other than being given anti-depressants which in retrospect only made my condition worse. Additionally, no support such as counselling was available at my school. Mental health is important for a myriad of socio-economic reasons, one being that it is much harder to be productive at work or achieve good grades at school.
NHS research suggests that 1 in 6 children struggle with mental health and many children achieve low grades because their mental health challenges cause them to have difficulty concentrating, lack of optimism and difficulty sleeping. New research from Ecclesiastical has revealed that the majority of schools (97%) are providing support for pupils who struggle with their mental health. Yet, one in eight teachers admit to feeling poorly equipped to support students with mental health issues. Two thirds of teachers are now more concerned about managing mental health and wellbeing of pupils as a result of the pandemic.
Hospitals are also now faced with huge recruitment issues and are consequently struggling to ensure the quality of care being provided is adequate. In a recent BBC Panorama episode investigative journalists uncovered a ‘toxic culture’ at one of the UK’s biggest NHS mental health hospitals with police now launching a criminal investigation. According to the BBC investigation staff were shown slapping, pinching and taunting vulnerable patients. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be an isolated case. I recall the neglect and bullying culture at the hospital I went to and I felt outraged at how some of the most vulnerable members of our society are treated without dignity. There needs to be more accountability of staff and perhaps even surveillance inside these hospitals to ensure the protection of the patients, many of whom are deeply unwell and unable to defend themselves from the abuse. There should also be procedures for patients to report abuse and an independent body to analyse and assess the quality of care being provided.
Although I have grievances about the way I was treated at my time in hospital, thankfully the system is by no means broken, the Early Intervention Service in Sussex has been tremendously helpful for me and my family and I have had access to all the support that I could have asked for. Despite this though, I am one of the lucky few who even receive support. According to mental health charity Mind, approximately only 1 in 8 adults with a mental health condition receive treatment. This is shameful.
After over a decade’s worth of mismanagement and “chronic underfunding”, according to The Mental Health Foundation, by the Conservative party in mental health, the country now faces a crisis. UK mental health problems account for 28 per cent of the burden of disease but only 13 per cent of NHS spending. Therefore, I believe that we should campaign for adequate funding in mental health and to bring down the long waiting lists in the NHS.
Suicide is reported to be the number one cause of death for men under 50 in the UK. In a, still, relatively prosperous and affluent nation like ours, that is a disgrace and every Liberal Democrat member of our party should feel deeply concerned for each suicide that could have been prevented were people given the adequate support they needed from the state.
As well as campaigning for additional funding I believe that the establishment of what I would call “wellbeing centres” where preventative holistic treatment is offered including; sleep therapy, healthy dieting, exercise and education as well as medication would be ideal. A place where psychiatrists, psychologists, personal trainers and other specialists are under the same roof in a rehab type facility for people of varying mental health conditions could help those suffering most. The report, ‘The economic case for investing in the prevention of mental health conditions in the UK’, also makes the case for a prevention-based approach to mental health which would both improve mental wellbeing while reducing the economic costs of poor mental health. The report finds that mental health problems cost the UK economy at least £117.9 billion annually, approximately 5% of GDP. The establishment of wellbeing centres would be an improvement to the current availability of mental health facilities in communities across the country and would be a net-asset for the nation’s economy as well as mental health.
Depression can often lead to a sense of nihilism and defeatism, but surely if politics or indeed life more generally is to have any meaning then that meaning can only be found in trying to alleviate the suffering of other people. Caring for others and supporting those who can’t support themselves is a core tenet of any social democrat party and the pursuit of happiness for the individual as an end goal and not a means to an end is what it means to be a Liberal. Therefore, a bold but realistic policy on mental health is needed next conference and as the country searches for leadership right now in this time of crisis, we must provide the leadership for the people whom we serve.
* Jason Perysinakis is a Lib Dem member