We can easily forget that every number on a chart is a human being. Each new case is enforced isolation with its own problems. Each death a light gone out for loved ones. It’s easy to see the lines rise and fall with passing weeks like a living stock market waiting to crash. We have been led to this state of unconscious dismissal of human life through months of clumsy governance. It isn’t our fault we’re back in lockdown — despite the virus’s anti-mask fifth columnists. And yet, here we are. Suffering another month (or more) with the walls closing in.
Mental health is always relegated to the token promise in political speeches. It’s that moment of ‘thoughts and prayers’ or Matt Hancock’s favourite “Our hearts are with them”. These are gestures not acts of governance.
We face a difficulty in finding bespoke data on adult mental health due to the absurdity of the biggest survey only being carried out every seven years. The last of these surveys from 2014 is so out of date, its primary webpage is through the National Archives. The regular NHS data is so focused on targets and standards, it falls to the same cold numbers as Covid’s press conferences.
There is still an attitude of dismissal from government whenever mental health is mentioned. And so, when the minister for mental health Nadine Dorries MP refuses to engage with clear political will for action, it tramples on the raw emotion we’re experiencing. No applause on a Thursday night could balance such ignominy.
Mental health provision is not a political argument. It’s not a question of ideology or old books written by old men. And yet, past governments have wielded it to call themselves virtuous when a truly responsible leadership would reach out beyond the one-liners.
For example, what will thoughts and prayers do for parents who are called to be told of their child’s suicide at university? Their eulogies are painfully similar. Bright, beautiful people lost too soon with many demons or none. These cases are worryingly normal for university students. A system under extreme pressure with buckling funding, provision and weak access to further care is certainly not fit for the pressures of another lockdown. In my university, the referral from their own counselling services to NHS secondary care took over a year. When your options are as exhausted as you are, where would you turn for help if it’s not coming?
Seeing Manchester students using their power to protest against a failing system constantly using them as culture war ammunition, for anyone who has experienced such failures, is a liberating sight.
“It is not our fault” says the speaker. It’s true. We are not to blame for the rising numbers. Ten quid off Nando’s is no replacement for good health.
A history of government disinterest with mental health is being exposed dramatically in our new normal. The New York Times reported in 2017 of an ‘ambitious’ system of providing talking therapy on demand. But this read hides beneath positive case studies a stark warning about CBT — the policymakers’ pride and joy. “It’s not for everyone” says the psychiatrist, flipping through a diary several weeks and months to book psychology in full, knowledge this person is too damaged for the wait.
The saddest thing about this period is that the government must know exactly what mental health and illnesses can do to a person. I refuse to believe that Downing Street hasn’t felt the gnawing sirens of suicidal thoughts, or looked at a pair of kitchen scissors with a despondent stare. Mental health affects everyone. Some better, some worse who suffer in silence. The only reason for not funding, providing and adapting governance to improve mental health is political ideology. Balancing the books won’t mean anything to people who can’t stand up straight.
A more compassionate government on this would reach out. It wouldn’t cower behind leaked memos to Sunday papers or put a postscript “Oh and mental health is something isn’t it!” after every relevant speech.
Last month, research charity Centre for Mental Health issued a dark warning. 10 million people needing mental health intervention as a result of the pandemic. That’s nearly a fifth of our population including 1.5 million children and young people under 18.
This isn’t a just a crisis which is exacerbated those already suffering. It’s created new people struggling with anxiety, depression and other illnesses. The forecast goes onto stratify individual group needs — something the government has failed to do, especially for black and minority ethnic communities. If the government wakes up and decides to act responsibly, any plan must be as specifically targeted as the Centre for Mental Health’s forecast.
Mental health provision is not a tagline to be thrown across the despatch box. It’s the torment of voices, worries, compulsions and fears that turns a world inside out. I’m weirdly proud to be mentally ill. For all its hell, it connects me with a vast network of equally suffering, often frustrated people. Lying on a bed with charcoal around my mouth made me realise the seriousness of this uncured plague. A seriousness the government must realise immediately.
We were already in a pandemic before Covid appeared. But the government’s pithy slogans are no vaccine to put our suffering minds to rest.