Imagine a type of illness affecting 1 in 4 people every year, where people in crisis were being made to travel up to 300 miles to get treatment. Imagine this health problem was the biggest killer of men aged 18-40. Imagine there being a 2.3% cut in that particular NHS budget, despite increasing need and a history of being underfunded. Imagine too, that this particular health problem often resulted in discrimination in the criminal justice system, in employment, and in housing. Imagine people were receiving sectioning orders to free beds in overcrowded wards.
This is the story of mental health in the UK. It is often described as the Cinderella service of the NHS, as it is consistently ignored and neglected by NHS leadership. In 2011, public health leaders argued that something had to change with mental health funding, and, granted, something did change; the funding was cut further.
Where is the criticism about our society’s approach to mental health coming from? It comes from the corners of society that are exhausted by their outrage, growing cynical about the possibility of change. It comes from charities overstretched and under-supported. It will be one day admitted in shame that, as a country, we condemned the most severely mentally ill to overcrowded wards, overcrowded prisons or, with recent welfare changes, humiliating impoverishment.
On International Mental Health Day, it is worth reflecting as to where the “movement” is heading. Think tanks such as Reform are looking at how to evaluate policy impact in terms of well-being rather than simply in financial terms. Teachers are looking to incorporate mental health on the curriculum, and politicians such as Norman Lamb, Paul Burstow and Luciana Berger are working to improve the system from the inside. Change is coming; just at far too slow a pace.
Young people are also becoming more organised: Young Minds and Student Minds are national organisations that have only recently formed. Last year my society, Mind Matters, lobbied the University and the Union to improve services for students, improve attitudes and seek to support the mental health of their staff; the review process is drawing to a close and will soon report its findings.
Without prejudging its recommendations, it’s clear we have a fine opportunity to become the golden standard for mental health support in UK Universities. Other campuses should look to Leeds, where students can go to the Student Counselling Centre, to the University’s Mental Health Advisor or can seek information from the Student Advice Centre; around the country, Universities should look to Leeds where Nightline run a confidential listening service, where Mind Matters runs a peer-Support Group for mental health problems and a drop-in session for signposting and advice, where Student Minds run a peer-Support Group for eating disorders, where LGBT+ run a drop-in coffee hour where you can receive signposting or just have a chat. Many of these support avenues have only been available for the last two years, so of course, massive progress has been made.
In the end, rather than asking why it is that on days like these we are having conversations about mental health, the discussion really should be about why you’re not speaking up too.