Every year, at my University, the same article is written. It usually has a title along the lines of “We need to talk about mental health.” It reads the same way: it is often a heart felt exposition of the author’s own mental health difficulties, sometimes graphic, sometimes heart rending. The author wants to “start a conversation.” These articles are powerful, sometimes among some of the best personal journalism I’ve ever read.
But they ultimately mean very little.
I hate to be the one to say this, because I have written articles like that myself. And I do not, by any means, want to take away from the individual bravery of the authors who publicly admit to living with mental health conditions (it goes without saying that the stigma still sticks). But the older I get, and the longer I lived with my own mental health conditions, and the more I look at the state of mental health care, the more I come to a simple conclusion: we need radical political change to give people with mental health conditions the care they deserve.
At a local level, articles in student papers often fail to address that people talking about mental health is merely the first step, and more often than not there are immense, structural issues within institutions. I’ve written about some of these elsewhere. The Guardian reported that the spike in tuition fees had resulted in a surge of students seeking counselling. But University counselling services are often poorly funded, overworked and falling behind on student demand. This is reflective on the state of national mental health care. Waiting lists for NHS Counselling can be more than a year, and the Independent reported in 2014 that over 200 full time mental health doctors had been lost in budget cuts to the NHS, along with a huge rise in sectioning under the Mental Health Act. That number is far higher today. More recently, the Conservative Party voted to cut ESA by £30 per week. ESA is claimed by people who cannot work due to serious illness – including debilitating mental health conditions. This is just the latest in a series of Government measures which have disproportionately impacted on people with mental health conditions. Fairly consistently since taking office in 2010, the Conservatives have supported measures which have made the lives of people like me – who do live with mental health conditions – worse. It came as no surprise to many in Cambridge (where I live) that the Tory PCC actually suggested that people with mental health conditions should be forced to wear coloured wristbands to denote their conditions
People with mental health conditions need care, compassion, nurture and support. What we instead have is long waiting times in a poorly funded and stealthily privatized NHS, financial insecurity, and an often damaging rhetoric on the part of politicians which brands use as lazy or workshy. Faced with this reality, it’s not a “conversation” that needs to be started about mental health. Our reality is more sober than that. We need radical political change if we are to face a future which is anything but bleak.