The state of the nation's mental health in England is measured every seven years by the Government through a national survey of 'psychiatric morbidity'.
The latest survey for adults, conducted in 2014, was published recently and provides an important indication of the mental health and wellbeing of the population and of trends over time. Following the previous survey in 2007, the latest figures present a picture of what has changed since the beginning of the recession, of austerity and of the growing awareness and (perhaps) understanding of mental health issues in society.
The survey finds that overall levels of mental ill health in society are broadly similar to those in 2007, with about one in six adults experiencing a 'common mental disorder' (such as depression or anxiety) during the week before they were questioned and smaller numbers experiencing symptoms of psychosis, of bipolar disorder or of dependency on alcohol or drugs.
One of the starkest findings in the report was a steep growth in levels of mental health difficulty among young women. The survey found that some 28% of women aged 16-24 were currently experiencing mental ill health, including some 12% with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. These figures reinforce concerns that have been expressed widely about an apparent deterioration in recent years of mental wellbeing among teenage girls and young women. The reasons for this trend are not yet known, though pressures relating to social media, cyber-bullying, body image and school stress have all been cited as possible contributors. The survey also confirmed fears about a rise in levels of self-harm among young women, which was reported by one in five women aged 16-24, the majority of whom did not seek professional help for it.
The survey also, however, presented some positive results, including a reduction in levels of harmful drinking and alcohol dependency, particularly among young men, a growing willingness to talk to GPs about our mental health and a significant improvement in the proportion of people with common mental health problems receiving help for them. In 2007, just a quarter of people with depression or anxiety were receiving treatment; by 2014 this had risen to one-third, with rises in both medication use and access to psychological therapies. The latter is a sign of the impact of the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme that began at the end of 2007 but the former is a reminder that the majority of people getting any treatment for depression or anxiety are relying on medication alone.
The survey found stark inequalities in mental health, many of them persistent and well documented, both in the prevalence of mental health problems and in the ways they are treated. It found that Black people with common mental health problems were far less likely to be receiving help than people from other ethnic groups and that poverty, poor physical health and isolation continue to put people at a significantly higher risk of mental ill health. These findings reinforce a growing understanding that our mental health exists not in isolation but in connection with our physical health, our place in society and our wider life chances. It is both a cause and a consequence of social inequality and it cannot be addressed successfully without tackling inequality in its widest sense.
The survey points once again to the need for a comprehensive, cross-government approach to improving mental health and life chances. It asks as many questions as it answers but it provides as clear a picture about the mental health of the adult population in England as we will get for some time. A companion report on children's mental health is expected in 2018 to finally update the previous such survey from 2004, and it will hopefully complete the picture and provide some answers about the mental health of young women. But in the meantime it is clear that by the time of the next survey, in 2021, concerted action will be needed to tackle the inequalities and disparities laid bare in the report and to build a fairer future.