The Blog

A Window of Hope for Mental Health

Mental illness is now on the map. Let it not be eroded and eventually washed away by a sea of denial and ignorance.

The advice of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird "to climb into someone's skin and walk around in it" is the very epitome of empathy. Without the feeling of being able to put ourselves in someone else's shoes, we cannot begin to understand mental illness.

The first episode of a new documentary portraying the uphill battle to find paid employment when experiencing severe and enduring mental health problems is sensitively portrayed in a new BBC documentary Employable Me. It is a powerful account of living with problems of a nature and degree that puts a jobseeker at an obvious and immediate disadvantage. Trying to navigate through the already anxiety-provoking process of a job interview is difficult enough for most of us, but when observable behaviour breaks social norms, success in landing a job seems insurmountable. Having witnessed the pain and anguish first hand as the brother of someone with Autistic Spectrum Disorder, I have seen the years go by to a point where high intelligence becomes almost dwarfed by a difficulty to communicate socially; putting paid employment out of reach.

When I took part in the Channel 4 documentary Bedlam in 2014, it was not only the first time that the oldest Mental Health Trust in the UK had opened its doors to a documentary such as this, but the first time that a mental health documentary has won a BAFTA.

So what's the big deal with mental health? Not only would it be a tragic loss for such a hugely important public health problem to be lost in the fish and chip paper or cached internet stores of tomorrow, it would also not do justice to a need for us all to have a more acute awareness and understanding of mental health. Mental illness is common. 1 in 4 of us will, through the course of our lives, experience one or more periods of mental illness, mostly in the form of anxiety or low mood. We will probably still be able to get on with our everyday lives, but it will mean that life will be a struggle. For some, it may be more devastating and put some of us at risk of self harm. It is a horrifying statistic that more than 5700 people in the UK died by suicide in 2010.

Mental disorders such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder ('manic-depression') affect just over 3 in every 100 people in the UK. With mental health beds shrinking to what can only be described as a literal vanishing point, the need for urgent treatment will not go away and we have already heard about problems with patients being shunted from pillar to post to find a hospital bed. If this was an acute physical health problem and there was no bed, you can imagine the public outcry. In 2012, there were 800,000 people in the UK with dementia. This number is likely to rise to 1 million in 2021. We are living longer, but need to preserve our quality of life across the lifespan. This means that early diagnosis and social support is paramount, resources for which do not grow on trees. But it's not just dementia that we should worry about in older people. There is also a rising trend in alcohol problems in our Baby Boomers, now in their 50s and beyond.

All in all, what should we make of all this? For one thing, it isn't easy to imagine mental suffering and picture something that you cannot easily measure, such as an inflamed appendix, a low blood count or high blood pressure. Most of us have experienced some of the symptoms of physical illness like headache, weakness and poor appetite, but just try to combine this with a complete loss of interest, self-neglect, feelings of not wanting to go on or voices telling you that are evil and deserve to die. Now it's a different story. It's like a physical illness but magnified 10-fold.

Attracting people to work in mental health is still in need of a fillip. In spite of our best efforts, only about 4% of medical students eventually pursue a career in psychiatry. However, there is hope on the horizon in the form a global leader in mental health as the President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Professor Sir Simon Wessely. Professor Wessely has a clear vision for mental health, with his main priorities being to make the parity of esteem between physical and mental health a reality, improve the image of psychiatry and psychiatrists and improve recruitment into psychiatry. This is going to be a tough sell, particularly in the face of psychiatry still seen in some sections of the medical community as nothing more than a chat with the 'sad and mad'. There is also much bad-mouthing of mental health even in medical circles. Lurking behind these professional and public attitudes is an ignorance that has caged itself off from advances in research and clinical services.

There remains a huge mountain to climb in service provision for people with mental illness, which is not up there with cancer or heart disease, yet most of us will either have suffered or know at least one other person who has suffered from a mental illness. Many of us will also be too ashamed to talk about for fear of being called a crazy, mad, weak or dangerous. How sad it is to see a civilised society with such primitive attitudes to mental illness. It is only when we see real life stories such those depicted in Bedlam and Employable Me, that we can start to scratch the surface of understanding and being open about mental illness.

It will be interesting to see the long term effects of poignant and moving documentaries on public attitudes to mental health. Information about the series Bedlam reached over 69 million Twitter accounts and viewing figures for all 4 episodes were between 1.1 and 1.7 million. Let's hope that mental health awareness translates into something more meaningful into the right slant on how the media portrays what is often a debilitating and devastating illness.

Mental illness is now on the map. Let it not be eroded and eventually washed away by a sea of denial and ignorance.