“Talk to someone” and “Yay! Charidee!” no longer suffice for mental health campaigns.

We need answers to why so many of us are becoming ill in the first place, and why successive ministers have failed to respond with anything like the policies needed to deal with the problems.

Journalist Debbie Luxon, who has written extensively on equalities issues, featured a local-to-Cambridge case for World Suicide Prevention Day. It’s not easy speaking to the media about your own health issues, whatever they may be. It’s even harder when it’s to do with something that has carried a religious stigma for centuries.

Adverts on talking to people

There were the familiar adverts from well-known mental health charities such as Mind and the Samaritans below.

There was also this from the Department of Health and Social Care:

which linked to this webpage which covered the themes of talking and phoning and talking some more. Useful – and even as life-saving they can be to some people, I can’t help but feel we’re avoiding some very difficult public policy conversations. This was a theme that more and more of you had been picking up on.

The case that Hannah Curtis is a particularly heart-breaking one, because her mother has not been receiving the treatment she so desperately needs. And her case will sound depressingly familiar to anyone who is a carer to a close family member in the face of very limited health services.

Above – more and more of us are calling out the underlying causes.

On dealing with the underlying causes – difficult conversations for individuals, families, communities, academics, employers, and politicians alike.

In one sense it’s too late for me. I’ll never get back the years that were taken from me by institutionalised religion amongst other things. Hence why the ‘talk to someone’ messaging these days goes over my head. My take is that the state should be providing enough free counselling services to deal with what is an epidemic of mental ill-health.

Growing up and living in a place like Cambridge inevitably comes with the baggage of academic stress. Dr Zoë Ayres produced a series of posters on mental health in academia here.

Again, too late for someone like myself whose university days started two decades ago – even though at times it can feel like it was only yesterday.

There were a whole host of reasons why my mental health imploded at university during my years in Brighton, but the lack of institutional support is a common strand. As a result, the university concerned never got anywhere near the best out of me even though a number of contemporaries told me as we headed towards our finals that I should have been aiming for a First. It was only when I told them of the health problems I had that they realised why I came away with a 2:1 instead.

Institutions accounting for and learning from broken policies of their pasts

For those institutions that have ‘being right/correct’ about something, you can see why this becomes a difficult issue. In particular institutions of religion and party politics. How many times have you come across a politician who simply reads a line-to-take in response to an interviewer’s question, showing no indication that they have heard and understood the question posed? It’s a bit like that.

For other institutions, there will be a fear for their reputation as well as a fear of getting sued. This is one of the reasons why overcoming institutional barriers can be ever so difficult. The campaign by Dr Anna Bull and fellow campaigners with The 1752 Group, challenging academia to own up and respond to their shortcomings on dealing with sexual abuse by members of staff. Her book on Class, Control, and Classical Music is one I blogged about – it is an excellent piece of research. Read more about Dr Bull’s research on her blog here.

Why the response to CoronaVirus has made things harder

This extended piece goes into the research detail. In my case the combination of an existing chronic mental health condition that stops me from functioning full-time (hence not being able to work full time) means that overcoming issues of isolation and a sense of being ‘left behind’ have become all the more difficult following the closure of all of the venues and places where I’d normally meet and interact with people. The early months of lockdown where we had to stay indoors for all but the essentials were particularly difficult – especially as collectively we knew ever so little about the nature of the virus.

I blogged about the shutdown of group activities earlier. It has been particularly difficult for us vocalists because loud singing in a confined space is more riskier for the spread of the virus than quiet talking outside. And despite the best attempts to use online software, it cannot compensate with being in the same place as your fellow musicians. (Maybe if we had built that really big concert hall that I want for Cambridge we could have gotten round it!)

So…where are the treatments? Why have we seen such little positive difference in how we treat mental health despite the annual campaigns?

You’ll have to ask ministers past & present at The Treasury and the Department for Health on that one. One thing the Lockdown has taught us is about the impact of the old normal on our collective mental health. Long distance commuting en masse is one – which wrecked me physically (I put on 4 stone) and mentally (permanent exhaustion from 3 hours travelling per day). Not surprisingly, when given the opportunity to work from home, many took it up. When ministers asked everyone to return to their offices, many decided that living and working remotely, coming into a big city office less frequently was better all round. Except for those that had invested huge sums in big office developments.

Football clubs standing up to be counted and taking positive action.

This is Cambridge United Football Club

With men my age being disproportionately at risk, sports clubs are one ideal starting point for a response. This is what I mean about institutions going beyond talking. Easier said than done under the current climate of social distancing I know. But in the more longer term, assuming scientists develop a vaccine or cure, the ‘new normal’ that we move to (whether we choose to or whether the climate emergency makes us) has to involve time, space, and resources available for all of us to do things that improve our mental health and strengthen our communities. In the meantime, politicians have that small self-inflicted problem of Brexit to deal with – one that ministers made even worse by stating in Parliament that the Government intends to break international law in order to get its way. Which has had unintended and far reaching consequences. Ministers table the Internal Market Bill with said toxic clauses for its second reading in the Commons on Monday 14 September 2020. Which will be an interesting day in Parliament.

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