Theresa May has announced that the government is going to put measures in place to try and reduce the stigma surrounding mental health. There is also going to be an investigation into how people with mental health problems can be better supported in the workplace, and digital mental health services are going to be improved in order to boost the care available for young people.
Obviously these are all good things, and obviously we don’t talk about mental health enough. I am willing to bet you know a lot about the physical health of those around you – who has diabetes, who has carpal tunnel syndrome, who broke their leg last year – but not who is bipolar or who struggles with anxiety that means they nip to the toilets for a cry every afternoon. It was this double standard that made May realise the importance of support for people with mental health problems, because physical ailments get sympathy whereas “if you have a mental health problem, people are more likely to try to avoid you”.
But despite all of these lovely things May is saying, no more money is being allocated to mental health services and in her speech May was insistent that improving the conversation around mental health was more important than funding the country’s mental health services.
Look, I’m not going to deny that the stigma attached to mental health is a huge problem, especially when it comes to the workplace. I know people who are successful and well respected but who are keeping their mental health problems a secret because they’re not sure how people will react to them. This is terribly sad and we should all feel confident enough to get the support we need. However, our mental health services are already straining under the demand for them. Without more funding, more people accessing help will make them buckle under the pressure.
I am willing to bet you know a lot about the physical health of those around you – who has diabetes, who has carpal tunnel syndrome, who broke their leg last year – but not who is bipolar or who struggles with anxiety that means they nip to the toilets for a cry every afternoon
It’s also really dangerous to say that the support of the people around us is all we need to cope with our mental health problems. My friends, family and colleagues are as supportive as anyone could hope for when it comes to my mental health, but that didn’t stop me going from “I feel a bit blue” to being suicidal a few months ago. Whilst I am so, so thankful to the people around me for understanding that sometimes I find it hard to cope with my own brain, it’s the SSRIs swooshing round my system and the weekly therapy sessions that are helping me cope long-term.
I would also argue that the lack of mental heath services for the people who need it is also actually contributing to some of the stigma. There are so few mental health crisis teams out there because there isn’t enough money for them, which means that a lot of the time when someone is having an urgent mental health problem it’s the police who have to help them. It doesn’t help the world feel sympathy or understanding towards someone with mental health problems when they’re seen surrounded by the people who also deal with criminals.
I really want to believe that May’s announcement is the start of positive change for the mental health community. More people talking about their mental health in order to reduce the stigma around it, whether that’s politicians like Theresa May or celebrities like Carrie Fisher, Robin Williams, Catherine Zeta-Jones, can only be a good thing, but it’s only treating half of the problem. To go back to the comparison to physical illness, it’s wonderful that people are talking about their breast cancer scars in order to reduce the stigma around mastectomies, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to worry about treating the cancer itself. The stigma around mental health is a bad thing, but it’s not the main thing we should be fighting and it’s really important that the government doesn’t lose sight of that.