Childhood obesity is a serious problem. We see this public health issue as a collective responsibility, therefore different approaches were utilised to address it. Talking and creating awareness was not enough, so the government stepped in with public education around healthy eating, but also a broader range of interventions such as the sugar tax and healthy school meals. So why, then, are people being forced to address their own mental health issues without help from the government?
They have been raising awareness and getting people to talk, which is more of an achievement for charities and the media than the state. Other than this, little has done little in the form of government intervention – in fact government policies are making it worse.
We live in a society that worships individualism; that makes us believe that our mental health is our own responsibility, even in situations when there’s nothing we can do about it. Some things that lead to mental health problems in the first place are beyond many human beings’ control, even more so if you are part of a discriminated minority.
In a time of austerity, rising personal debts and precarious work, we are encouraged to be an individual that should not rely upon anybody for anything. If we do, society perceives us to have failed in life and look weak. The narrative that many people ‘choose’ to be on zero-hours contracts is false. They sell the gig economy as being empowering and entrepreneurial, yet an unstable paycheck and lack of workers’ rights says something else. The stress this puts on someone, already struggling to manage, can be immeasurable. It also leads to higher personal borrowing as the cost-of-living rises but the wages have stagnated, the UK has hit record levels of personal household debt.
With increasing income inequality also comes higher health and social care problems. I worked in an emergency department for several years as a mental health nurse, assessing people that had tried to take their own lives. Many of my patients were not mentally ill, they were desperate and stressed by things such as marriage problems, bringing up children, lack of support from services, employment issues and money problems.
People may say individuals should sort these problems out themselves, but the truth is you need help from family, friends, and government services. If these services were funded correctly to help people, then they could get back to being contributing members of society that pay taxes, help friends out, look after elderly relatives, bring up children and work, which feeds into the economy. Without functioning citizens, you cease to have a functioning country.
However, the problem goes back much further than the austerity era of the last decade. Since the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, the UK has slowly gone from a collective community supporting each other to a country with an individualistic, ‘I’m alright Jack’ attitude. It was Thatcher who introduced an ideology that would see state companies privatised and many industrial towns lose their economic soul. The age of individualism is here, and if you cannot make it, then you are seen as faulty. As we can see from social media, we are more obsessed than ever by who has what. Sending a false image of ourselves to others, we ruminate about how others see us, when in reality it’s our own self-confidence that is suffering.
As the narrative of the country has changed to a more individualistic one, we expect people to take responsibility for things beyond their control, when they are at their most desperate. This is not only unfair, but adds to the stress of managing your own mental health issues and puts you off seeking help. You believe you must help yourself, or you have failed.
This is where mental health services and the government should step in to support people, yet the government has done the opposite and cut funding to the NHS and charities, while it has also restructured and restricted the welfare system so even the most desperate of people cannot access it.
We need not only a well-funded NHS we need a systematic change in our ideological outlook for the country. It is no accident that countries with a stable welfare system and have a good records on workers’ rights also rank highly on happiness scales. Countries such as Denmark, Sweden and Finland, while not perfect, are an example of the way we should go. A country with well-funded universal basic services can help relieve the unnecessary stress that austerity, individualistic thinking and unstable employment put on people and their loved ones. These are the first steps to addressing the ever-growing epidemic of mental health. We need to change society and our own narrative if we want a healthy and happy country for the future generations.