otrbristol | 21st September 2014

5 things that need to happen for a better understanding of mental health

OTR’s Media Officer Liam wrote this about changes that are needed in mental health, as a response to the tragic death of Robin Williams.

1. We need to be proactive, not reactive, in discussing mental health

In the aftermath of Robin Williams’ suicide, inevitably his mental state came under scrutiny and a global conversation started about depression.

Sadly, within the next couple of years we will more than likely be mourning a handful more of our favourite singers, actors, sportspeople and authors through suicide. As morbid as it sounds, it’s a prediction that can unfortunately be made with good reason.

Suicide is the cause of death for over 30,000 Americans every year (6,000 Brits), and even if you don’t buy into the theory that those involved in the arts are more susceptible to mental illness, by simple law of averages it will continue to take some of our most recognisable entertainers. In recent years, we’ve mourned the likes of Gary Speed, Mark Speight, Amy Winehouse and L’Wren Scott – and for a few weeks following each death, mental health has been thrust into mass consciousness.

Whilst instigating conversation about such a difficult subject is positive, it shouldn’t take the death of a high-profile individual to get us talking about mental health, addiction, looking after ourselves and how to find the wherewithal to seek help. Statistics indicate that one in four people suffer from mental health issues – so if you’re sat in an office right now then look around: there’s a fair few of your colleagues fighting a battle you know nothing about. When you’re at a concert, you’re equally as likely to find people struggling with depression, anxiety or addiction in the audience as you are up on the stage.

Mental health does not discriminate and does not take into account how famous, rich or important you are. It’s a horrible misconception that bipolar, for instance, is a ‘celebrity’ condition or an illness found exclusively in ‘tortured creative geniuses’.

That’s why we need to ensure we keep the conversation going; not only immediately after a celebrity loses the fight with their demons, but on an ongoing basis, out of care and diligence to those around us who continue the battle.

2. The media needs to take more care and responsibility when covering mental health

27060-hedg7zLessons still need to be learned in how mental health is reported – and quickly. Whilst not quite on ‘Bonkers Bruno‘ levels, headlines (via The Sun and Metro in particular) demonstrated an alarming lack of understanding from reporters who inform and influence. Is it in the public interest (that is, after all, what newspapers are tasked to serve) that Robin Williams slashed his wrists before he hanged himself?

Do we need to watch a live feed of a helicopter monitoring his house?

ABC might have since apologised for this coverage, but why didn’t the conversation asking “Is this of any value?” take place before they breached his privacy in such an undiscerning way?

There are a multitude of courses and workshops available to charities – delivered by current and ex-media bods – disclosing information on ‘how journalists tick’, revealing just how charities’ stories can get into print. Charities need press; journalists know this. Charities are encouraged to spoon-feed journalists with emotive, ‘real life’ case studies, because those are the types of stories that resonate with readers. That is true, and this coverage can be invaluable – it can raise awareness of causes and campaigns, and prompt donations. In theory, that’s great.

But let’s also not forget that a journalist’s main objectives are to a) fill their word-count, b) meet their deadline and c) sell newspapers.

With that in mind, there needs to be a shift of paradigm and a recognition that charities have the experience, know-how and qualifications to sensitively deal with beneficiaries who are often vulnerable (this is particularly true of those struggling with their mental health). Journalists, largely, don’t have this experience. Let’s turn the tables and give charity professionals the opportunity to deliver workshops to journalists. By affording mental health experts the same didactic platform, it allows them to explain what is constructive – rather than damaging – when reporting on depression, suicide, eating disorders, OCD and bereavement.

Would journalists turn up to that training session?

Would they pay more attention to this advice if the latest suicide in their area was a friend or family member?

Those are two different questions with, I suspect, two different answers.

Time To Change’s media guidelines aren’t there to obstruct or interfere; they exist to protect. They state:

When done well, news stories can be a tremendous tool. Well written news stories about mental health can raise awareness, challenge attitudes and help to dispel myths. Responsible news reporting can give people with experience of mental health problems a platform and can offer an audience great insight into issues they may have known little about. However sensationalist journalism and overplaying a risk of violence can promote fear and mistrust. It also widens the gap of understanding about mental health issues.

Beat also list some very considered pointers for the reporting of eating disorders.

Let’s start paying attention to these, because they are created by professionals who deal first-hand with people who are struggling; professionals who understand the intricacies of mental health, and potential trigger points, better than anyone.

3. We need to put some money into it. Now.

poundcoins_979365cLess chat, more action. Various MPs have made noises about how mental health is in desperate need of funding, but all we have seen in recent times is cuts.

Cuts that have disastrous, fatal consequences.

Rowena Golton killed herself whilst in limbo on a waiting list for treatment. Jonny Benjamin found himself standing on the edge of Waterloo Bridge because support wasn’t available to him as a depressed teenager.

Norman Lamb himself concedes that children’s mental health services are in the ‘dark ages‘; a remarkably obvious statement made well over two years into his post. (By the way: he made similar comments in 20112012 and 2013. What are we waiting for?) Making provisions for mental health care is vital – it needs to be given parity of esteem with physical health. If you suffered a stroke and you were told to wait six weeks to be seen, chances are you’d be dead. The harsh reality is depression can have the same outcome. Time kills and depression kills.

Would you be happy if you were encouraged to “just run it off” if you broke your leg? That’s the theory nonsensically applied to those who are depressed – patients are told to “get over it” or “cheer up”, as if there’s an on and off button for mental illness. This is a terrifyingly flippant attitude to a serious health complaint. People who self-harm, for instance, should get the same respect, dignity and compassion as anyone else that comes into hospital.

If you are ever asked “What do you have to be depressed about?”, particularly by a professional, remember that question makes as much sense as “What do you have to be broken leg-ed about?”

Money needs to be used to educate and support GPs and empower them to help mental health patients, rather than scribble for a prescription or tell them to stop time-wasting. Money seriously needs to be invested in youth mental health care, as early intervention is key. It would be wise to spend money on creative and bespoke youth mental health projects, for instance those specific to race, ethnicity or sexuality, to ensure a targeted and effective treatment for young people.

By injecting money into mental health care, it saves vast amount of monies elsewhere:

The impact of early intervention really could be dramatic, but is woefully lacking, especially for young people who struggle to gain access to the support they need and more often than not, will continue to struggle on into later life.

More than half of all adults with mental health problems were diagnosed in childhood, however less than half were treated appropriately at the time – a stark warning that if we don’t take any action now, the number of people living with long term mental health problems could continue to rise, again costing the Government more over a longer period of time.

— Ilona Burton, The Independent

The thing is, until someone famous died, mental health isn’t a ‘trendy’ thing to talk about – certainly not for politicians.

Here’s a screenshot of the House of Commons on a meeting about MP expenses and pay rises:


And here’s the same room during a discussion on mental health:


Anyone else see the problem?

The people in power of this country need to put their money – and energy – where their mouths are.

The manifesto for better mental health, published earlier this month, articulates five key points the government would do well to prioritise in coming months and years:

– Fair funding for mental health – Commit to real terms increases in funding for mental health services for both adults and children in each year of the next Parliament.

– Give children a good start in life – Ensure all women have access to mental health support during and after pregnancy. Raise awareness of mental health by putting it on the national curriculum and training teachers and school nurses. Invest in parenting programmes across England.

– Improve physical health care for people with mental health problems – Ensure Government targets for smoking reduction apply equally to people with mental health problems. Create a national strategy to stop people with mental illness dying early, due to preventable physical health problems.

– Improve the lives of people with mental health problems – Continue to fund the Time to Change anti stigma campaign. Offer integrated health and employment support to people with mental health conditions who are out of work.

– Better access to mental health services – Introduce maximum waiting times for mental health care and support, including psychological therapies. Commit to continued improvements in mental health crisis care, including liaison psychiatry services in all hospitals. Continue to fund liaison and diversion mental health services, working with police and the courts.

4. We need to put mental health on the curriculum

o-CLASSROOM-HANDS-facebookOne of the aforementioned suggestions, placing mental health on the curriculum, would be a hugely positive step. There is so much misunderstanding about mental illness and that contributes to a misguided discourse – mental health has been labelled as ‘the last taboo’ in many quarters and is still a highly stigmatised subject.

Covering mental health in schools doesn’t need to be mollycoddling in its approach. Kids are taught about physical health, so why not emotional wellbeing and mental health?

Young people arguably have it harder than most emotionally – they have a cocktail of hormones to contend with as well as with peer pressure, early relationships and fitting in at school. Children and teenagers across the country are hurting themselves in order to cope; they do not have the resilience to deal with life and bounce back from its difficulties. Instead, they need to feel confident and empowered that when they speak about their issues, they’ll receive help – and not be ignored.

We need to educate children at a young age that struggling with their mental health does not make them weak, and dispel archaic myths such as “people with mental illness are violent” (mental health patients are more likely to be victims of violence than commit an offence). Children are impressionable and so a balanced and considered approach to mental health early on is vital.

Physical education has a long history. Ratified by the Education Reform Act in the 1980s and included in the government’s national curriculum, no one can argue that we shouldn’t be looking after the physical health of our children. So why are we not taking mental health as seriously?

— Ben Morse in the Guardian

Many schools already signpost to mental health charities and organisations relatively effectively, and many have introduced in-school counsellors – a very positive step in pastoral care.

The next logical step would be placing mental health on the curriculum – moreso than a couple of lessons within the PSHE timetable – so young people are equipped with knowledge and coping mechanisms to look after themselves and their friends when times get tough.

5. We all just need to slow down and be a little bit nicer to each other…

Being nice doesn’t cure mental health problems – it’s not as simple as that – but it can go some way to help, as a recent Time To Change campaign has suggested.

We live in a 100mph world where everybody needs everything instantly; we’re bombarded with emails, texts, Tweets, more emails, everyone is ANGRY, meeting requests, deadlines, conferences, calls, magazines telling us to be skinny, schedules, homework, more emails. You get the point.

Sometimes in among all the hustle and bustle we need a bit of time to reflect and to speak to each other – little gestures can make a big difference.

Pay attention to how your peers, friends and colleagues are behaving and coping – you don’t have to turn into Dear Deirdre overnight, but asking how someone is doing goes a lot further than you think.

Robin Williams touched upon his depression in the past, but nobody envisaged his tragic death. Fans across the globe will miss his comic brilliance; more importantly and poignantly his family will miss a husband and dad. Keep the conversation going – not only for Robin, but for the good of us all.