As a mental health advocate, you would think I would welcome this week’s Mental Health Awareness Week, an initiative set up in 2001.
And in many ways I do. When I first wrote about my own severe depressive episodes in my thirties in my memoir Black Rainbow in 2014, lack of awareness about mental health was indeed a problem. Stigma was widespread. The most common response to my memoir was how brave I was to talk about my own struggles. For ‘brave', I read foolhardy.
But since then, talk about mental health has expanded hugely. We are all aware of mental health now. Once the topic was rarely covered in the media. Now mental health is constantly in the news.
The conversation now needs to shift from awareness to treatment. How can we help all those who are suffering? And what is the best way to do so?
First, let’s consider the role of medical treatment and the NHS. No-one can deny the vital role of professionally provided treatment in addressing serious mental health conditions, and the need for the funds to do so. But what if we are going to have to radically rethink how we approach mental wellbeing more broadly? That given the level of demand, the NHS will never be able to solve the mental health crisis?
The sheer numbers of people who need help are daunting. In November last year, for example, a YouGov survey for Rethink Mental Illness found that the nation’s mental health had ‘failed to rebound after the pandemic’. The research found that around three in ten adults’ mental health has deteriorated since the start of the year.
A second survey published in November 2022 by the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) found a similar story: we are a nation which is struggling with our wellbeing. Its survey found that almost one in two adults felt the cost-of-living crisis was affecting their mental health. Meanwhile estimates from the Centre for Mental Health in October 2020 suggest that up to 10 million people – 10 million! - will need either new or additional mental health support.
But the NHS will never, ever be able to solve the mental health crisis.
I agree that we are not providing enough NHS support in certain areas – in particular to certain groups such as young people, vulnerable after the pandemic, and middle-aged men who are most at risk of dying by suicide (and have been since around 2010). They often suffer in silence, says Dr James Arkell, consultant psychiatrist at the Cleveland Clinic and the Nightingale Hospital.
Meanwhile waiting lists for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services vary around the country but can be shockingly long: parents tell the charity Young Minds about their desperation at several month-long delays for their children to be seen.
But the NHS will never, ever be able to solve the mental health crisis. Partly this is because it simply cannot cope with the sheer numbers. And secondly, because not all those who are finding life difficult are best treated with drugs and by doctors. Awareness of mental health conditions may have gone too far. In some cases we may be medicalising what Freud described as ‘ordinary human unhappiness’. This is not to deny suffering; it is to suggest that there may be other ways of helping people which don’t involve medication.
The new paradigm that makes sense to me is that we all have mental health, just as we all have physical health, and we affect each other’s wellbeing. Our day-to-day mental fitness depends hugely on our environment and immediate experiences.
Here the aim is for all of us to do a better job at supporting ourselves and feeling more connected to one another. To create a more sympathetic environment for anyone who is struggling. If mental health is about the whole person flourishing rather than just the avoidance of mental ill health, then we need to recognise that all areas of policy and social life are relevant: not just healthcare but the arts, transport, food, education, homes, green spaces, work and welfare, social care and more.
We also need to take more responsibility for our own mental health – be kind to our own minds
Which is where charities can play a crucial role, and why I’m supporting the Kind2Mind initiative from The Big Give Charity. This week, it will double any donation to the 180 participating charities it has selected, all of which improve mental health as part of their work.
The charities include everything from the Wave Project, which has delivered surf therapy to over 6,000 children since 2010, to Empire Fighting Change which provides boxing therapy in Bristol. These charities are mainly about helping people’s mental health in ways that do not involve medication and responding in fresh ways to support psychological wellbeing. Many of them recognise that mental health problems can be as much social and environmental as medical, an approach the NHS is also taking with its social prescribing programme.
We also need to take more responsibility for our own mental health – be kind to our own minds. Here I have several dogs in the fight. For a while, I have been writing about ways we can look after our own emotional wellbeing, embracing strategies from nutrition to poetry which can make us feel more supported and connected.
My latest book is about poetry’s therapeutic power. To paraphrase the poet Paul Celan, a poem is like a handshake: it creates bonds between us. Or as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of literature: “You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” Poetry can help you to understand your emotions and feel less alone at three in the morning, when there is no-one else to talk to, and NHS support is largely unavailable.
So this Mental Health Awareness Week, let’s rethink how we treat mental health. Yes, drugs can play a part. Yes, some people do indeed need medical help and much more quickly than current NHS waiting lists allow. But there are many other ways we can be kind to our minds and the Big Give is leading the way.
Rachel Kelly is an ambassador for The Big Give’s Kind2Mind campaign launched this week. The Kind²Mind campaign supports mental health charities that coincides with Mental Health Awareness Week.
Now in its second year, the campaign is seeking to raise over £1.5 million for the 180 charities taking part. Last year the campaign raised a total of £316,500. This year the campaign, which runs from 15th – 22nd May, has grown significantly with £810,000 of matched funds available for the charities to access. Donate to the Kind2Mind campaign via the Big Give platform.
Rachel’s new book You’ll Never Walk Alone: Poems for Life’s Ups and Downs is published by Yellow Kite.