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14th April 2024

We need to politicise mental health

A rising number of people in Britain are on antidepressants. Your risk of mental illness correlates with how young, how poor and how socially-disadvantaged you are. Why is this and what should we do about it?
We need to politicise mental health
Credit: mattza @ Flickr

Content warning: This article contains discussion of suicide and bereavement.

Mental health awareness is on the rise. We’ve all seen the public health campaigns urging us to check on a mate. Last month’s Students’ Union elections saw candidates promising action on improving mental health services and ending burnout amongst students. The government’s new strategy on preventing suicides shows a healthy and growing awareness of this issue.

Compared to our grandparents, who were more likely to suffer in silence, we’re becoming more open and honest about our emotions. The sensitivity around men’s mental health in particular shows how far we have progressed in destigmatising the issue. Charities want to give people the recognition they deserve – this includes campaigners like ManUp? whose name seeks to “redefine that awful phrase.”

Our openness represents a brilliant shift of attitudes. No one should ever be shamed for facing issues that, frankly, we all experience at some point. But we aren’t going far enough. To truly tackle mental illness we need to stop seeing it as an entirely personal issue.

When you give it some thought, mental illness is clearly also a collective problem. A nation at war, for example, is going to have higher rates of PTSD and depression caused by the loss of loved ones. We recognised this during the pandemic when there was widespread talk about how social isolation might affect people.

Unfortunately, our culture is so individualist that we only admit to this during extreme circumstances like lockdown. Grief or some extreme tragedy isn’t the only cause of mental illness. Whether you feel stress, disenchantment, lack of control or ill-treatment, it’s a heavy burden to carry. It’s why the most deprived areas in this country, and the most disadvantaged social groups, suffer the most. We need to recognise the impact political issues have on our mental state.

For instance, too many people are caught between the rock and the hard place of facing financial insecurity or of working a job they don’t truly love; and that’s for those who even have the luxury of choosing. Many people struggle with money while working a job they dislike. This choice is so widespread that we rarely even talk about it. It’s just a fact of life, after all.

But is it really? Of course things can never be perfect but they’re not only failing to get better, they’re getting worse. More and more young adults are struggling to get on the housing ladder, never mind own a home. Average wages haven’t risen in sixteen years. Record numbers of people are working zero-hour contracts. Even government health agencies admit these things can cause mental illness, but this fact is strangely lacking in public debate.

Some suggest that we’re just more open about the stresses of life. Piers Morgan would even have it that we’re “too soft” these days, but I think it’s clear where the blame for rising mental illness lies. It’s absurd to be scoffed at by a generation which enjoyed so many advantages like free tuition, affordable homes and being able to retire before your seventies.

We’re the first modern generation to have had it worse than our parents. It isn’t the fault of the pandemic, or some other catastrophe. With the oncoming effects of the climate crisis and the way our public services are going, pursuing the status quo can only make things worse for us all.

The rate of mental illness is steadily rising and it isn’t only because people are more honest in surveys; the government measures diagnostic criteria rather than self-labeling. This isn’t a matter genetics or chemicals; it’s obvious that many of the causes are political and we won’t fix them by persisting with the narrative that each person’s mental illness is their own.

The way we talk about social media is another place we are far too individualist. We all know what Instagram does to the mindsets of young people. We’re reminded how easy it is to forget that someone’s profile doesn’t reflect their real life, but a selection of their best moments. It’s a point made so often to become clichéd, and I doubt how much it has actually helped people, because in my experience – as much as I know it’s true – it doesn’t stop me from thinking my life is dull when I’m lying in bed watching someone else’s story of them surrounded by friends. The paradox here is that my phases spent wasting hours away online correspond exactly to when I’m at my lowest.

You might say it’s my own job to regulate myself online, and there’s truth to that. As I’ve discovered time and time again, I usually feel better to put down the phone and go out to meet people. But to reduce the story to one of personal responsibility is to ignore how tech companies design their platforms to be as addictive as possible. When digital spaces are  quite literally engineered to maximise your time spent scrolling, it’s no wonder people get caught in the dissociative web of the Internet at the cost of just living life.

Thankfully, we’ve moved on from the days when we talked about contagious disease as a punishment from God for your sins. Mental illnesses are no different. Yes, someone’s own choices might contribute to their situation, but while a victim of the pandemic might have fallen ill because they didn’t wash their hands, we wouldn’t say that’s what caused coronavirus. We would spread awareness about wearing masks and give people vaccines. Most importantly, we would tackle the cause and the spread of the disease.

That is where we’re failing in our approach to mental health. GPs do what they can; they prescribe mindfulness and, failing that, pills. Antidepressant prescriptions have tripled since 1998. I know so many people my age who are on them, and I don’t think it’s a situation we should normalise.

While I don’t deny that medication can help people – I use it myself – I find its increasing treatment as a “magic solution” troubling. Although it’s good to give people the tools to help themselves, it doesn’t amount to a lot if we ignore the conditions that led to their issues in the first place.

Mental health isn’t something to be left to the doctors; whether you’re a voter, a student or a politician, it’s an issue for us all.

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