THE BLOG

Mental Health: Action Needed, Not Just Words

11/05/2017 16:31 BST | Updated 11/05/2017 16:31 BST
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The growing understanding of mental health issues may be removing stigma from sufferers, but is it doing enough to help those with problems? Not yet.

Although Mental Health Awareness Week brings a welcome focus on issues still sometimes ignored in families, the workplace and by wider communities, far more needs to be done by the government and its agencies to create and fund support programmes. Awareness is not a substitute for action.

As a volunteer for the Samaritans, I know that many distressed callers are people who have no family or friends to whom they can turn, let along the self-awareness necessary to seek medical help. The crisis in their life is simply allowed to grow, unchecked, until reaching a point of such desperation that even an unseen stranger at the end of a telephone line is better than having nobody to talk to.

There is something profoundly sad about such abject loneliness, which can trigger or at least exacerbate mental issues. Disconnection in a world that seems, apparently, to be fully connected thanks to technology is an especially bleak twist. But because the challenge of how to help a troubled mind these days is both constant and changing, the NHS must acknowledge this and invest more in helping through ongoing support.

Unfortunately for an age of collective purchase decisions, and one-size-fits-all medicine, mental health difficulties are not a single problem. They are complex and very particular to an individual. This means more cost and attention than state institutions are increasingly prepared to provide.

Time and time again, we take calls from people who appear to be getting no form of support from the NHS, but floundering with nowhere else to turn. There is A&E for a broken leg, but precious little for a broken mind. Mental health difficulties are often not an acute crisis which can be fixed with medication or a hospital stay, but rather a longer term challenge for which support may be required over many months or years.

It is not the mark of a civilised society to merely acknowledge a health issue exists; and the charity sector should be the fall-back for a health service as rich, powerful and organised as our own, not primary care.

Happily, there are signs that society is moving at least. Employers are now, generally, far more aware of the need to acknowledge mental health difficulties and to support anyone going through a crisis. In my own working life a young colleague committed suicide, with none of us who employed her ever aware that she suffered depression. We should have known, and the memory still haunts me. Unfortunately, even a decade ago I doubt most employers considered the mental well being of their staff unless there was a very obvious problem.

It is not just adults. Younger people seem to be facing greater risks, too, of developing mental health issues. One of my own children attends a school where a teenage pupil recently committed suicide. Once again, there was the shock of a life removing itself from seemingly unbearable personal agonies.

The truth is that many people are living on the edge, and a growing awareness of mental health issues among the general population will surely help them. But when we are all ready to help, we need to be sure that the institutions equipped to provide ongoing care are also ready. My experience at the end of a telephone suggests that they still aren't.