I was pleased and proud to be invited to attend an event hosted by the charity Rethink Mental Illness at their head office last night and I wasn’t disappointed.
Each member of the panel spoke from a different and valuable view point and there was a great mix of opinions. It felt that there were a number of points made that it is important to consider in the context of the public conversation on mental health and I wish there had been more time to go into these.
Not only are they close to my own heart (and head) but I was interesting to see how nuanced and passionate the discussion would get considering both the audience and panel included many with, as they say 'lived experience' of mental illness, like myself.
Over recent years, we have seen increased awareness of the impact of mental illness thanks to campaigners like Rethink, Mental Health UK, Heads Together and others and the panel agreed this has led to some of the stigma and taboo of mental ill health being lifted.
As the discussion moved from considering the more common illnesses like depression and anxiety disorders to the less common and more severe psychosis, the panel agreed that there was still much work to be done.
Notably, as neuroscientist and comedian Dean Burnett pointed out, increased awareness does not always equal increased understanding: 1 in 4 people are affected by mental illness each year in the UK is higher than the proportion of people who are football fans and yet this does not seem to do enough to raise the profile of mental illness.
Each member of the panel gave examples of those in need who were not being helped by the current system, many of whom were made worse in some cases by the system itself and that whilst paying lip service to mental health campaigns once in a while kept the issue in the public eye, it was not leading to real changes in how mental health services are being delivered or prioritised in the UK.
It seems that a positive shift in public attitudes has been growing over the past 5 years. But the panel all agreed that it is hard to see how this has improved things for those most severely affected by mental illness, like those who suffer from psychosis for example those with schizophrenia which is often a lifelong condition requiring a lifetime of management.
Steve Gilbert related examples of how there is a real challenge in providing timely and good quality care in the context of the austerity measures taken by the government, something he is well placed to vocalise as part of his role in the Mental Health Act Review. He also discussed the often-overlooked impact of severe mental illness on quality of life for those within vulnerable populations - people affected by poverty, racial prejudice and those within minority groups are less likely not to benefit by a raise in general awareness.
For these groups, and for some of the audience and panel members as evidenced by concerns raised about quality of care, more public awareness does not seem to have led to demonstrable improvements in the provision of care for those most in need. Author Emily Reynolds challenged the notion that self-care be the go-to for all mental illness and reinforced the point that many spokespeople for mental health are speaking from the perspective of being white and middle class and how this unfortunately often means a more favourable impression of mental health service provision is given than exists in reality for many people.
This is not to dismiss the significant shifts in openness towards discussion of mental illness, as related by both comedian Juliet Burton and journalist Bryony Gordon. Certainly, it is easier to be open and honest about one’s mental health challenges these days in my own experience. It seems that apart from a few critics who resent what they call a culture of un-British ‘oversharing’ and a bit of a generational bias, many people actually welcome the opportunity to share their concerns about themselves or a loved one whether publicly or in confidence.
Awareness of the impact mental illness has and knowing the importance of mental health can benefit us all by encouraging those in need to seek help and show how its possible to take steps to look after our mental health like we do our physical health.
In my experience, for suffers of mental illness there is great benefit in knowing you are not alone.
It is clear to see within the support networks being developed all over the country for both suffers and their loved ones, such as Mental Health Mates, that awareness is working to help people take action to help themselves.
During questions, I raised a point first mentioned by Bryony, whether our mental health could ever be treated as having equal importance to our physical health. This is something I feel quite strongly about and seems a no brainer to me.
However, it seemed that whilst this may be a meaningful goal, it may be one part of the puzzle of how to best understand, manage and accommodate the multi-layered issues surrounding societies attitude to both (preventative) mental health and mental illness and sadly we ran out of time to explain this in more depth.
Capturing in one discussion whether increasing awareness and understanding translates into more action was certainly an ambitious premise especially when considering the whole spectrum of mental disorders and illnesses.
The panel ended with the consideration of how much more work there is to do, and it was unsurprisingly unanimous that much more can be done. This led to a rededication by each member to keep at it and in their own spheres to challenge stigma, push for change and raise both awareness and understanding to keep the conversation going.