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The Comedy of Errors

Nadia on... Mental Health

12 May 21 words: Nadia Whittome
photos: Fabrice Gagos

In her monthly LeftLion column, Nadia Whittome, MP for Nottingham East, discusses issues affecting both Nottingham and Westminster. This month, she talks about mental health...

Even before the pandemic, a mental health crisis was sweeping the UK. Since the seventies, the increase in mental illness among adults and children has been staggering. Today, one in four UK adults have received a mental illness diagnosis, and four million people are on antidepressants. 

The last year has only made things worse. 69% of adults in the UK reported feeling worried about the effect COVID-19 was having on their life. Of particular concern is the impact of the pandemic on people with mental illness. In a survey by the charity Mind, more than two thirds of adults with mental health problems reported that their mental health got worse during lockdown. 

Among the hardest hit by the pandemic have been young people – both economically and in terms of mental health. Nearly three quarters of university students, who have consistently been treated as an afterthought in the government’s plans, reported that their mental health declined during lockdown.

I asked the government back in November what assessment they had made of the adequacy of mental health support services in areas with high student populations, like Nottingham. The answer I got recognised the potential increase in demand, but set out no concrete steps to improve mental health provision.

Waiting times for mental health services, which were already long before the pandemic, have shot up. My inbox is full of emails from constituents who are struggling to access the support they need. I’m increasingly worried that this will result in more tragedies – suicide rates in Nottingham are already above the national average, it is believed. 

Some work is underway locally. Nottingham City Council has received over £600,000 to create a suicide prevention programme. Framework, Harmless, Mind and Turning Point have joined forces to create Crisis Sanctuaries – safe places for people experiencing a mental health crisis. 

Less stigma around mental health may mean that more people recognise and declare that they suffer from mental illness, but this is only a small part of the story

But these initiatives are sticking plasters for a sector which is chronically underfunded. Since 2012 the government has promised to value mental health as much as physical health – the so-called “parity of esteem” – but the reality, and the funding, doesn’t match up. It needs to honour this commitment urgently.

While better mental health services are a must, we also have to ask why our mental health is so bad in the first place. Biological or genetic factors play a role, but they do little to explain a crisis which has continued to grow. Less stigma around mental health may mean that more people recognise and declare that they suffer from mental illness, but this is only a small part of the story.

As the mental health crisis has grown over the past forty years, so has inequality. Disparities in wealth rose sharply after 1979, and today the top fifth have 60% of the country’s wealth while the bottom fifth own just 1%. Wages have failed to keep up with the cost of living. The proportion of people privately renting has increased. One in five people are in poverty, and a growing proportion of them live in households where at least one person is working. It seems hardly surprising that so many suffer from anxiety and depression when people live in insecure and stressful conditions. 

Studies have shown that there is a significant connection between people’s social and economic circumstances and the pervasiveness of mental illness. A report by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, for example, found that children from the poorest households have a three-fold greater risk of mental ill health than children from the richest households. It concluded that “inequality is a key determinant of illness, which then leads to even further inequality. Government policy and actions should effectively address inequalities to promote population mental health, prevent mental ill health and promote recovery.”

So to tackle the mental health epidemic we must go beyond individual wellness and mindfulness strategies, helpful though they might be for some people. We must go beyond better mental health services, though these are also desperately needed. 

Truly addressing this crisis requires that we recognise that the way our society is run and organised is making people sick, and that we transform it to prioritise our needs and wellbeing above runaway greed and profit. This is easier said than done, but the situation is so serious it is nothing less than essential. 

nadiawhittome.org

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