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This Mental Health Awareness Week, Let's Look At The Bigger Picture

09/05/2017 11:31
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We've been talking a lot about mental health lately - and it's great. Last month, Prince Harry bravely opened up about his own struggles with mental health problems, contributing to an incredibly important discussion about the importance of talking about how we feel - especially for young men. However, it also opened up a crucial conversation about the inequalities that mean that someone like Harry is likely find it much easier to get treatment than most of the rest of us. At the weekend, the Conservatives pledged to tackle mental health discrimination with a new law and new staff - warm words indeed, but they ring hollow given that this promise comes with no new money to pay for them. In spite of the government's woefully inadequate response, the growing awareness of how poor this country's mental health services are is incredibly important - and it is clear that the government is feeling the pressure.

This week is Mental Health Awareness week, a vital opportunity to talk about some of the issues we often overlook when we talk about mental health. These conversations are often far too narrow - focussing solely on what happens when someone seeks help for a mental health problem. What we don't talk enough about is what happens before that: what factors affect our mental wellbeing; why certain social groups are more likely to suffer; why more and more people are seeking treatment each year. Or, when we do talk about those factors - in particular those, like financial pressure, poor housing or academic stress, which affect young people the most - we just don't make the link with our overstretched mental health services.

For example, last month a survey revealed the shocking extent to which SAT tests are affecting pupils' wellbeing - even at the age of six. The research found that in 78% of primary schools, cases of stress, anxiety and panic attacks had increased over the past two years; teachers reported incidences such as a pupil losing all of their eyelashes as a result of stress.

This overwhelming and counterproductive pressure continues throughout young people's education - and for those who go on to study at university, it is added to by the psychological weight of the tens of thousands of pounds of debt they are saddled with when they leave. Research last year found that worries about debt and financial problems were causing anxiety, depression and alcohol dependency among university students; in a separate survey, 63% of students reported worrying about their finances all of the time or very often. And these worries have very real consequences: figures last year showed student suicides to be sharply on the rise.

And it's not just education. Britain's housing crisis is fuelling a rise in mental health problems too. Research by the housing charity Shelter earlier this year found that one in five adults has suffered mental health problems because of housing issues in the past five years - and that millions of people across the UK are experiencing those effects now. Younger people - and in particular those who are LGBT or BME - are disproportionately affected by housing problems and are therefore more likely to be exposed to the harmful impact these problems have on mental health.

We know that when a person seeks treatment for mental health problems, there are huge inequalities in the quality and speed of the help they receive; but it is clear too that those inequalities exist even before that point. Mental health does not exist in a vacuum, and if we are going to tackle this generation's wellbeing crisis we must recognise that mental health isn't just about what goes on in our heads - it is about where we live, where we work, the pressures we face and the oppression we experience in our day-to-day lives.

Today we live in a profoundly unhealthy society, with too many forced to work long hours just to make ends meet, young people battling with academic pressure, or endlessly moving from place to place because of the cost of renting. Fixing this requires utterly rethinking what we value as a society, and that means not just spending our money on properly funding the NHS, schools and community services instead of tax breaks for the rich, but also valuing free time, taking advantage of new technology to reduce the hours we work, and teaching children important skills - not teaching them to pass exams. We've been told that there's no alternative to working ourselves into the ground in order to survive, sacrificing our mental health at the altar of the economy. It's a lie. The Green Party stands for a different vision, and a very simple one: putting people first.

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