Big Tent

A prescription for improving our nation’s mental health

BY Chris Key   /  13 September 2017

A few years ago, I was forced to make a tough decision. Seek real help for mental health problems or face sectioning under the mental health act. To say that I had not considered suicide would be a lie.  The NHS could only put me on a waiting list for talking therapies, so I ended up taking the expensive road of paying £4,000 for a week at the Priory. Because of that week, I have made a full recovery and my entire approach to life has changed completely. Not everyone is so lucky.

According to the Office for National Statistics, suicide took 6,188 lives in the UK in 2015 – one person approximately 90 minutes. Female suicide rates are now the highest in a decade. One in four of us will experience a mental health issue in our lifetimes and it is the leading cause of work place absence in this country.

Depression is the curse of the strong, as the psychiatrist who treated me said. In the UK, too many of us, especially those in business, feel afraid to speak about depression or our mental health in case it impacts career prospects. I found that opening up to friends made me realise I was not alone but would never have felt able to talk about it at work. A close friend told me she had suffered post-natal depression, another had been self-harming since the age of 18 and I never knew.

Leaders in the world of business, politics and sport need to continue to talk about what they have been through. The revelation that Lloyds CEO, Antonio Osorio had to take time off for stress set an excellent example to his employees that even those at top are not immune from mental health problems.

The journalist Isabel Hardman of the Spectator has been equally candid about her experience with depression. In the business world, the idea of having mental health first-aiders in the work-place could really help to encourage people to come forward before things get on top of them. Knowing you can talk to a colleague in a confidential manner is hugely important.

We must also tackle the ways in which government bureaucracy adds to the stress level of those people who have fallen on hard-times. While of course we need to provide carrots to encourage people back into work, a system which forces grown men and women to go to a food bank because their benefits were sanctioned just because they arrived 5 minutes late for an interview is inhumane. There are not any jobs I know where arriving minutes late means your entire monthly salary is stopped. So why do we treat the unemployed any differently? Similarly, those who are long-term unemployed are more likely to suffer from depression. Ensuring that the services of a counsellor or psychologist are available to them when they go to sign-on must make sense.

Mental health problems can be triggered from life changing events outside our control, from redundancy, bereavement, a business or a relationship breaking down. Looking back, I was withdrawn, not eating and wasn’t my usual jovial self – my wife could tell there was a problem and persuaded me to seek help. Yet in many cases people do not know what to do to help those around them suffering from depression or anxiety. Just as the government spends money on public health awareness campaigns for every type of cancer or heart disease, is it not time they did the same when it comes to mental health? Pills are not the only answer. Exercise, diet and therapy helped me, as they do many others, to get my head in the right place.

Cold hard cash is also vital if we are to fix our nation’s mental health. Theresa May has repeatedly mentioned the need for more spending on this area. Yet the reality has been that NHS trusts, already short of money and desperate to meet waiting times on cancer and A&E treatment have inevitably robbed mental health budgets to do so. In 2016, 60 % of NHS trusts saw a reduction in the number of mental health beds despite the overall NHS budget being increased.

The final part of my prescription would be to tackle the declining mental health of children and teenagers. Nothing has been more destructive to the self confidence of teenage girls than the rise of social media and smart phones. Yet there are things schools can do. My own childrens’ school had a mental health week where they learned about how to improve their own and others self-esteem. Teaching children that satisfaction comes from close friendships not possessions nor having the perfect body may seem trite but it can help shape the right attitudes and prevent potential mental health problems as children enter tricky teenage years. ​​

The statistics are clear – our nation’s mental health is not in good shape. Government, business and schools all need to row in the same direction if we are to prevent more of us from sinking.