This week, City Lit will be hosting its 3rd annual Mental Wealth Festival (12-14 September), exploring the human face of wellbeing. Over the three days of the festival, we are looking forward to hearing real life stories from various mental health ambassadors and experts, as well as personal reflections from those who have encountered mental health issues.
During the last three years, it's been encouraging to see a noticeable cultural shift in attitudes towards discussing mental health issues. From royalty, to sporting icons, to politicians, it's fantastic to see we are becoming more comfortable as a society in openly discussing mental health problems with friends, family members and colleagues. However, statistics suggest there is still plenty of work to do to ensure even more people can overcome any fears they may hold about opening up about a mental health issue.
Mental illness affects nearly 1 in 4 people in the UK, and suicide rates remain worryingly high (over 6,000 people committed suicide in 2014). Whilst the scale of mental health issues naturally differ from person to person, these numbers suggest that there are still far too many people not getting the required help they need to overcome a mental health issue.
London in particular faces a growing mental health crisis, especially when demographic trends are taken into account. The population of London continues to grow unabated, and with people living longer and staying healthier, the capital's population is noticeably ageing. If current trends continue, the number of over 65s will outstrip under 16s by 2035, and tackling the problem of social isolation as people age should be a key priority moving forward of both policymakers and institutions such as City Lit.
Aside from isolation, the financial pressures of living in a city as expensive as London is another factor in the city's growing mental health 'timebomb'. This is borne out by figures from the ONS showing that, perhaps counter to what many people might expect, anxiety or depression is highest in the 40-59 year old demographic. Anxiety, stress, or depression can be attributed to over 6.5 million lost working days per year in London, with a rough cost of just over £1 billion.
As one of London's leading adult education colleges, we believe the onus is on us to play a leading role in promoting positive mental wellbeing, and also in helping people make that first step in having the confidence to talk openly about their personal challenges. In a difficult financial climate, with social care facing a funding gap of at least £2 billion, we believe the opportunities offered by adult education and lifelong learning can help combat some of the underlying issues in society presented by mental health challenges.
A recent report from UNESCO suggests adult learning is one of the 'keys of the twenty-first century.' We agree with this sentiment, no more so than when applied to fostering positive mental wellbeing. Adult education provides the opportunity to learn new skills but also combats some of the emerging issues now facing society. At City Lit, I've witnessed countless examples of students of all ages and backgrounds emerging from a course with a renewed sense of self-confidence and purpose, and one of the joys of walking through our doors every morning is witnessing the hive of activity in our cafe area, where students socialise before or after their courses. Studying on an adult education course is not only a chance for an individual to broaden their horizons, upskill or simply enjoy some much-needed downtime from work or personal pressures. It also provides an invaluable opportunity to socialise, meet people from different backgrounds, and forge lasting friendships and connections for life. All of these factors play their own part in helping people keep mentally well. However, the need for increased funding and more thoughtful policy making around mental health remains a pressing concern given the challenges we face as a society, and we hope the role of adult learning will be closely considered in any future policy making decisions,
At the Mental Wealth Festival, Londoners will have the chance to hear keynote speakers including Sir Vince Cable, Ed Balls, Jonny Benjamin and Neil Laybourn, Bryony Gordon and Mandy Stevens reflect on their own wellbeing experiences. They will also be sharing their own insights on building mental resilience and tips for maintaining good mental health.
We would love for you to join us so you can play your own small part in ensuring the national conversation around mental health and wellbeing continues to remain open and transparent.
Phil Chamberlain is Executive Director of External Engagement at City Lit.
The Mental Wealth Festival takes place between 12-14 September at venues across London including City Lit, the National Gallery and the Houses of Parliament.
Tickets are available from www.mentalwealthfestival.co.uk/tickets