The stark reality of mental health

On World Mental Health Day today it is worth reminding ourselves of a stark reality: around a quarter of the population will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of this year. Put more simply, this means that statistically that will be one of your parents, your partner or you. And so it is particularly troubling that people experiencing mental health difficulties rarely seem to receive the support they need.

Of course, one difficulty with mental health is that problems can be much harder to detect than in the case of physical health. If you break your arm there is no stigma – you go to A&E and within hours you will be on the path to recovery. Even with less straightforward physical health problems, we know to report the symptoms and we have a rough idea of what to expect in terms of care. Yes, waiting times are getting longer and there are far fewer nurses than there were five years ago, but we are not scared to tell someone if there is something wrong with us physically, and we will protest loudly if we do not receive the care we need promptly.

Yet with mental health we might not know we are ill, because the symptoms can be far more subtle. We have probably all known someone who over time became increasingly withdrawn and did not seem to have the energy to do all the things they used to do. How often have we said ‘You should see a doctor’? And even when they realise that they do need medical intervention, referral rates can be painfully slow, leaving people increasingly abandoned and without the support they need. That is why the Liberal Democrats’ pledge this week to introduce targets for mental health waiting times is welcome, even if it could go much further, and arguably is too little, too late after years of real-terms funding cuts to health services.

However, those targets will be no use if they are not also accompanied by adequate work to enable everyone suffering from a mental health problem to recognise the symptoms and know who to turn to. In my own borough of Camden, if it is true that a quarter of people will have a mental health difficulty this year, that means that nearly 60,000 people will be affected. We have a hard-working and committed team working to support people with mental health problems, but we are certainly not reaching all of those people.

Why not? Well, in part the stigma means that people often do not seek help. But it is also true that, while support is available, it is not always clear what it is and how to access it. We need to make it much easier for people to find the information they need, and to ‘signpost’ them to the relevant services. So posters and leaflets in GP surgeries, useful though they are, cannot be seen as enough. We need to put the information where people will find it. That might involve engaging in online forums and using social media in creative ways so that the people who need support are pointed to it, possibly even before they realise that they should be seeking it. It also could mean actively working with groups whose members may be suffering from mental health problems – not just the ‘usual suspect’ service user groups, but, for example, reaching out to new mothers who could be going through postnatal depression, or working with services for older people, one in five of whom suffer from depression.

Only by improving how we promote mental health services will people know what support is available. And it will only be when everyone who needs it actively seeks help that cutting waiting times will become a meaningful commitment.

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Maeve McCormack is a councillor in the London borough of Camden and chair of the Camden Mental Health Service User Forum. She tweets @McCormackMaeve

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Photo: Ferran Jorda

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