Let’s include the most vulnerable this Mental Health Week

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Mental Health Week is for everyone. Importantly, it is an opportunity for universities to focus on the welfare of their students. It is a chance to speak out about issues aggregating poor mental health for students: exam stress, financial woes, food poverty and even discrimination. It is also an opportunity for all faculties to promote the fundamental notion that health, and that includes mental health, should be every student’s top priority.

The age-old maxim that ‘as long as you have your health’ has never been as relevant as today, with millions of Britons struggling with the complications and consequences of lockdown. Most are grateful to have their health, but, tragically, not everyone has been lucky. The world has suffered an unprecedented death count, and we have been forced to face loneliness in confinement, confronting our own thoughts. This has been a time of suffering, but it has also been a time of great compassion. A new benchmark of our empathy, it is the time and place for us all to reflect on our most vulnerable, who for years have been battled state confinement, abuse and isolation from the public in psychiatric facilities. 

One year ago, Whorlton Hall in County Durham was the centre of a scandal which evidenced the historic systematic neglect that enabled individual abuse by sadistic carers to patients with learning disabilities and autism. Many patients experienced physical abuse, mockery and lewd behaviour by those entrusted with such a powerful caring role, let in assumedly by care shortages. The BBC Panorama film exposed how these young, innocent people were treated awfully in a generally poor environment, through the brave and courageous investigative journalism of Olivia Davies, who undercover crucially filmed the disturbing incidents.

Just reading the BBC article on it, which outlines the suspension of sixteen staff, would fill anyone with disgust. My worry is that not enough people saw it and are still not fully engaged and aware. The main reason for this documentary’s production was the efforts of the families who were never involved in the application of care as they should have been; had been physically distanced miles away from their loved ones, and were not taken seriously enough. Davies deservedly won the Nick Machin Investigative Journalist award, as her brave filming was extremely valuable. Shot scenes were used by the aghast medical professionals to inspire change, raise awareness, and allow families to be believed.

It is hard to tell sometimes whether a scandal like this was silenced, as the outside view of the Government’s response to this isn’t very defined. It is clear that Cygnet, the private American medical health provider which provides beds for the NHS, is still riddled with problems. The Panorama Special forced the CQC to reassess every Cygnet branch, resulting in six hospitals being currently placed in special measures, including Colchester, Chesterfield and Bradford, which is disheartening, but progress.

If you are personally affected by this issue, then you will be highly aware of it. If not, you likely won’t have a deep understanding of it. The Panorama special focused on longer-term patients who were poorly treated and forgotten about, but the distribution of psychiatric beds in acute cases especially is, as ever, a problem.

In the midst of a pandemic, we have seen the frightening damage a lack of beds causes, yet this chronic problem has been affecting patients who have been involuntarily sectioned for years, pressuring discharge and jeopardizing recovery when people are forced to move across county lines for care. The NHS does not have the beds to cover the increased number of committed mental health patients. Expensive contracts and lack of accountability are forgiven under the ongoing direction of privatisation. However, this unsustainable arrangement is long due revision, to ensure patient safety and prevent further scandal. The physical health capacity of the NHS was shown to be at breaking point, but it’s mental health capacity had already snapped long ago.

It may seem like there is nothing we can do, but, as with all mental health issues, talking about it is truly half the battle. Discussing mental health and feelings alleviates the pressure. Uttering a strange thought aloud can dampen its power, and free CBT resources are helpful to those with multiple diagnoses to those with none.

This week, it should be our duty to broaden Mental Health Awareness Week to those who have been hospitalised by mental health conditions. We need to listen to them. University is often the time of adolescence when serious mental health conditions manifest. Try and discover how life is going for other people, so it can be a place of healing for all.

“These are people that deserve so much more. These are people that aren’t able to speak up for what they deserve. To see how poorly treated they are on a regular basis and how much more they could be having and how much more of a life they could be living. If they weren’t living there.” Olivia Davies

Available on BBC iPlayer. Expires on the 21st May, 10pm.

Seamus O’Hanlon

Image: Needpix.com