Our politicians need to do more than pay lip service to mental health

25 Sep 2017

In every party manifesto at the last election, from Labour to UKIP, there were promises made on mental health. Of course, apart from the whole ‘we’ll give more money, there will be parity with physical health,’ there didn’t seem to be much difference between parties that are ideologically separate. At PMQs, Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn will play political ping-pong at the despatch box, with mental health as the ball. It’s always the same - Corbyn accuses May of cutting vital funding, May responds that there are record levels of mental health funding with the Conservatives. It’s the same show every week, with the parties jeering in the background like playground children.


That is not to say that we should not appreciate promises to raise money, or in some cases, it actually happening, but I am constantly finding myself hearing the exact same thing from every politician. Some of them, to be fair, mean well, and do genuinely want to help mental health patients, but it’s starting to get tiring.


Yes, we need more psychiatrics, yes we need more mental health nurses, yes we need more counsellors, but throwing money at something – the NHS, education, and in this case, mental health, doesn’t always help.


At the end of the day, there is a stigma attached to mental health, and that is definitely the first hurdle that we need to break down. In the older generation, it was hushed up, and whilst most believe that the younger generation are more progressive, it does not mean that your best friend will totally understand when you have a panic attack, or when you’re not just sad, but depressed.


They’ll pat your back, and give you a hug, but at the end of the day, they don’t know exactly how bad it is. Depression isn’t just crying into your pillow at night, and anxiety isn’t just feeling a bit scared about going to a party. Whether it’s a full on panic attack, or the heart pounding that makes you feel like you’re about to die, it’s more than just that. Of course, there are the less common illnesses, such as borderline personality disorder, which are a lot less understood. It’s rarer that people, especially amongst our generation, have, or at least admit to having, the more severe mental health conditions, and as a result of this, it’s understand that people, even those who suffer themselves, don’t understand.


Of course, a lack of understanding does not equal genuine discrimination, which is an even bigger issue. On the TV, all the time, people with mental health issues are called ‘crazy’ or ‘weird,’ especially when something bad has happened. On a recent trip to America, I was shocked by the sheer amount of homeless people in the beautiful city of Boston. Many, I noticed, talked to themselves or shouted randomly at people. The statistics for mental illness amongst the homeless are extremely high, and often it is a reason as to why they are sleeping under cardboard boxes.


A lot of these homeless people will be laughed at by drunkards, or even horrible sober people. Their boxes will be kicked over, they will be mocked, and even more worryingly, attacked (homeless women are hugely at risk of being victims or rape). If people can’t be kind to the absolutely most vulnerable in terms of the homeless, they may have no qualms about being discriminatory when at the bar or work, often unchecked by friends and co-workers. I have read stories of people being called ‘nutters’ by strangers who have seen them enter mental health homes. If they speak like that openly to strangers, imagine how they are usually.


I have not seen any parties adequately address mental health services in terms of breaking the stigma, and I say that as a member of a party. No amount of legislation will properly help, because legislation doesn’t change people, society changes people. When at school, there were often talks about mental health, but it’s usually just about symptoms and where you can get help, usually locally, but often phone numbers like that of Samaritans.  It’s great for people who need help, and it’s also fantastic for people who want to look for friends who need help. What it doesn’t do, however, is teach people not be absolute idiots against people who need help.


The government, the opposition, and other parties also needs to understand mental health is more than just what is affected, and what affects, the brain. Often, those with mental illnesses will get physical symptoms, and that is a hugely underreported part of mental health education. Yes, people may have other illnesses, but the headaches, the nausea, the stomach pains, any doctor will know that it is most likely caused by what’s happening in the head. They can reassure the patient, but so many do not understand that it is most likely a cause of their mental illness, and they stress even more, thinking that something is really physically one. In the middle of a panic attack, when the patient stresses and sweats, they do feel as though they are dying - their heart is beating so fast against their chest that it feels like it is going to give up completely. There are numerous trips to the doctor: it’s a revolving door of fear, and yet we never hear of it from the politicians.


Maybe this article is a bit harsh. As I said earlier, a decent number of politicians do care. Those who don’t, well, they’re clearly not the public servants we want or deserve. But the Conservatives, Labour, the Lib Dems, and UKIP all need a bit of a kick. We want them to care, and they probably do, but they need to more than just care.


They need to know, and they need to know more.

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