The realities of the mental health crisis we’re facing are becoming clearer every day. In the UK, one in four young girls are self-harming, around eight million of us are diagnosed with anxiety every year and globally one person completes suicide every 40 seconds. Sadly, gaps in reporting and low disclosure rates mean that these kinds of statistics are often conservative estimates.
So what’s ostensibly to blame for this crisis? Are we just becoming more aware, better at detecting the issues? Or is it social media, exam pressures, workplace stress or an education gap? It would be naïve to say that these don’t all have their place in the complex cocktail that is mental health.
But I would argue that these things are really just the oil greasing the wheels of the crisis we’re in. The machinery at the heart of it is a malign combination of inequality and an evolutionary warp. So let’s break this down. The world we live in, and the political system we’re locked into creates inequality. This is undeniable. In this country, 1,000 people have more wealth than the poorest 40% of households. This elite saw its wealth increase by a staggering £82.5billion last year – enough to pay for 68% of the entire NHS budget, or 4 years of adult social care in England.
On the ground, and especially in an age of austerity, this means that wellbeing becomes a privilege. If budgets for creative pursuits are squeezed out in schools, the benefits of creative activity on young people’s mental health are within reach for only the wealthiest parents who can finance this themselves. Inequality means hobbies, holidays and balanced diets are readily there for some, but not for others. And with more libraries and community centres being closed and sold off every day, outlets for curiosity, learning and growth are shut off for so many.
And what about the evolutionary warp. Well, for most of the 300,000 years humans have been on this planet, we’ve been hunter-gatherers, farmers and shepherds. We’ve existed in tight-knit groups spending our days outdoors. We were all of us craftspeople, designers, builders and creators. Our state of being and our wellbeing occupied an entirely different plane. A plane on which you could easily question whether mental ill health showed itself as it does in 2018… Today the majority of us live in mega-cities, boxed-up in flats, at one with our desks and sofas; many of us disconnected or isolated from the communities we live in. The agricultural, industrial and now technological revolutions have catapulted us into a world that our brains have scarcely had time to adapt to, and our mental health is bearing the brunt of it.
For me, these two factors are the driving force behind mental ill health in the world today, but aren’t getting nearly enough airtime.
By all means let’s talk about self-care, let’s campaign to reverse historic under-funding of mental health services and let’s revamp testing in our education systems. But let’s go root and branch and bring inequality and our evolutionary hard-wiring to the forefront of the national conversation on mental health.
Wellbeing should never be a privilege and the sooner we wake up to its real drivers, the easier it will be to create a mentally healthier world.