It has become all too common in recent times for a politician to single out mental health as something that needs to be prioritised and funded properly so as to get an easy applause on Question Time. However, while increased funding helps, it is about time that we get inventive with mental health policy, so that we aren’t sitting here in 10 years’ time regurgitating the same ‘we must prioritise mental health’ line.
Firstly, we need to address the incredible lack of education when it comes to mental health. This needs to start from day one at school. It can be as simple as giving effective and working definitions of terms within mental illness such as depression and anxiety, so that children will be able to identify if they are suffering from one of these problems as they grow up. Of course this needs to be backed up with a modern and effective PSHE system throughout the whole schooling system. Something that would include informing students about different types of treatments for mental illness, from therapy to medication, and the many different types of mental illness from depression to dementia. Ongoing education throughout a child’s school days would go so far in helping to remove this stigma that everyone refers to when discussing mental illness, because something can’t be stigmatised if it first normalised.
Of course, education should not only be limited to the confines of the classroom - it is crying out to be implemented in the work place. Public sector professions need to lead the way with mandatory education in mental health because people can only be as aware as they are educated on a subject. This education should incorporate training on how to best help colleagues who themselves might be affected, such as how to spot the signs of a panic attack. This would be so effective in helping those understand mental illness and be more receptive in dealing with it.
We need to address the incredible lack of education when it comes to mental health. This needs to start from day one at school
Secondly, this in-work education would be able to go someway in changing the work place culture which is not only exacerbating, but creating mental health problems itself. To combat this, work places need to become inclusive and tolerant of people’s differences. This starts with communication: a two way dialogue between an employee and their line manager, not just a one way monologue. Furthermore, mental illness needs to be recognised as illness when it comes to sickness days. People shouldn’t feel guilty for being ill without physical signs of illness. You wouldn’t expect someone to work with the flu so why expect someone who’s breaking down with anxiety to work? Both aren’t going to be productive.
Finally we need to improve the access to services. Of course it would help if we had the adequate services, however even the ones we have aren’t properly accessible. We have nurses going into school to deliver vaccines, so why not have mental health nurses going into secondary schools for a mental health check-up? A simple questionnaire such as the ‘Beck Depression Inventory’ can be done in 10 minutes and will quickly help if someone needs some help and if they do then they can be pointed in the right direction. Small but frequent assessments are painless but useful.
Of course, I have only sketched out rough ideas of what we could do with mental health policy in this country and to turn any of these ideas into policy would take work and of course funding. But let’s be brave and inventive with our mental health policy, and the next time you hear a politician try and sell you the ‘mental health is a priority’ line, ask for ideas not for soundbites.