AWARENESS of mental health problems has increased dramatically in recent years, partly due to high profile celebrities speaking out about their experiences, but also as a result of national and local campaigns to reduce the stigma.
Recently however, there have been discussions around whether these campaigns are actually doing more harm than good. Today is World Mental Health Day, and generally, awareness events like these are seen as a positive way of addressing how we talk about mental distress.
Professor Simon Wessely, the former head of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, isn’t so sure. He was recently quoted in the British Medical Journal saying there is a danger that awareness campaigns are making people “too aware” of mental health problems.
He suggested many people who are just experiencing life’s usual ups and downs may be wrongly led into thinking that they are ill and in need of help or treatment, and are therefore putting even more pressure on the already fraught mental health services and their staff.
I disagree. Mental health services are indeed under tremendous pressure and staff in the NHS, local authorities and voluntary sector services are struggling. However, ending awareness campaigns is not the right solution and is likely to cause real harm.
Yorkshire has particular problems around mental health. Less than a year ago, official statistics highlighted Yorkshire and the Humber as having the highest suicide rate in the UK – with over 600 reported cases in 2015. Just last month, it was reported that Yorkshire has fewer psychiatrists than most regions of the UK, with just five per 100,000 of the population, compared to 11 per 100,000 people in London.
Nationally we have seen a reduction in the number of psychiatric hospital beds, while the number of people in need of a bed has risen. This has led to a 40 per cent increase in mental health inpatients being taken to hospitals out of their local area, away from their family and friends.
Reducing awareness campaigns is not the answer to this escalating problem. Imagine the outcry if it was decided to stop promoting awareness of physical problems such as diabetes or cancer because of the demand on services. The public would, quite rightly, be outraged.
One successful campaign has been Time to Change, a coalition of mental health charities who set out to reduce stigma around mental distress and encourage people to seek help. Due to a well-funded and broad campaign, they have tracked positive changes since they were set up in 2007.
Public attitudes to mental ill-health have improved by about 10 per cent and those receiving mental health services have reported a drop in discrimination. However, some evaluations of awareness campaigns suggest that improvements in attitudes can be short-lived. We need to keep up the good work.
Even amongst mental health professionals, there can be a huge gap between workers’ understanding of the mental health needs of the people they are supposed to help, and their understanding of their own mental wellbeing. My experience as a social worker was that many mental health professionals have their own battles with mental distress. We find it much easier to talk about other people’s depression or anxiety than our own.
One of the problems with talking and dealing with mental distress is that much of what happens occurs inside a person’s head and is not clearly visible to others. It’s not an exact science.
Yes, public awareness can lead some people to self-diagnose (and often mis-diagnose) themselves and attribute their life difficulties to an “illness” they do not fully understand.
I myself, as a mental health professional, would notice an increase in people asking for help for certain problems shortly after a celebrity appeared on TV discussing their particular diagnosed illness. Life can be difficult and complex and we all seek answers to these issues. But many more people struggle in silence or lack awareness of how their experience of mental distress may be holding them back. Awareness campaigns help to make it more okay to say that you are not okay.
We need a lot more resources and more people on the frontline, particularly in Yorkshire and we need mental health services that are less bureaucratic. Hiding the scale of the problem will do more harm than good.
Alan Marshall is a lecturer in social work at Sheffield Hallam University.