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How We Should Talk About Mental Health in 2016

We talk about mental health now more than ever before, but are we getting the help we need?

by Eleanor Morgan
Jan 6 2016, 3:45pm

Over the last few years, people with mental health problems have, to some extent, become better at talking about them than ever before. Yet mental health services have splintered in such a way that, even if someone feels more comfortable reaching out and asking for help, it may be more difficult for them to get what they need. It's a bind that is both ironic and frightening.

In 2015, Britain's mental health crisis grew increasingly dismal. The Conservative government isn't just failing to tackle it—as a result of its systematic dismantling of the national health system, it is directly influencing it.

Under every policy that fails to deliver and every stretched system, lives don't just suffer—they are lost. Although no mental health issue can be attributed to a single cause—problems like anxiety and depression are multi-causal, with a confluence of factors at play—there were clear findings in 2015 that proved government policies in the UK are directly impacting vulnerable people and making things worse.

The United States, too, has a mental health system that is pretty fucked: despite the mental healthcare parity mandates that were implemented under Obamacare in January 2014, reports this year have shown that the system remains broken. In an encouraging sign, however, yesterday Obama pledged an additional $500 million in additional spending on mental health care.

The human ramifications of the mental healthcare failings of 2015 make for upsetting reading. In September, a landmark ruling in the UK directly linked the suicide of Michael O'Sullivan—a man with severe depression who was found "fit to work" by outsourced assessors despite notes from his GP about the cyclical nature of his illness—to having his benefits removed. The Work Programme is David Cameron's flagship scheme for welfare reform, but in December the charity Mind found that fewer than one in ten people (16,090 of 168,730 people) with mental health problems have been helped into sustained employment. Tom Pollard, Mind's Policy and Campaigns Manager, said: "After almost five years it is clear that it has been a failure."

We've been reminded constantly of how reluctant those in power are to zoom in on where things are going wrong at the ground level. In November, the DWP refused to examine the effect of its benefit sanctions system on the mental health of people who are affected by it. In December, all parties debated the issue of mental health—how the number of children with mental health issues who have gone to A&E has doubled; that one person in prison takes their life every four days; that the number of people of people detained under the Mental Health Act has risen by 10 percent in the last year—in Parliament, but the government voted against opposition calls for things like asking ministers to restore transparency of mental health funding and where it goes, to address the fundamental inequalities in access to services, and to work on a plan to help prevent mental health problems from occurring in the first place.

As Luciana Berger, Shadow Minister for Mental Health, said: "Nowhere is the gap between political rhetoric and reality more evident than here." The outcome was exasperating, but there is some reassurance in the fact that it happened at all. In 2016, we can be cautiously optimistic that Berger is there, trying to make changes, in a role that is the first of its kind in British politics.

In Britain, austerity has, to some extent, stirred public spirit. The broad range of people who went to this year's many anti-austerity protests—those directly affected, of course, but also those who want to help fight for them—speaks of a greater compassion for and awareness of mental health because it's at the root of everything. That people have become so active around such issues should mean that conversations about mental health will be more frequent in 2016, better informed, and more encouraging of empathy, because this is what helps break down social stigma.

In 2016, mental illness and stigma are still a double helix that needs dismantling. The media must change its behavior. Headlines are not just headlines; language is how we form perceptions. And if that language is discriminatory, the trickle-down effect is seismic.

When Andreas Lubitz, co-pilot of the Germanwings plane that he crashed into the Alps in March, killing 150 people, was found to have a history of recurrent depression, some outlets went into overdrive. CNN's homepage splashed an image of Lubitz beneath the headline "UNFIT TO WORK." "Killer Pilot Suffered From Depression," shouted the Mirror. "Madman in Cockpit" was the Sun's headline. "Why on earth was he allowed to fly?" asked the Mail. Inside, Piers Morgan argued that no one taking antidepressants should be allowed to fly a plane. "Frankly, I don't care if he was mad, bad, or sad," he said, never shy of using a tragedy to push his brand. That mental health charities had to remind the public how very few depressed people become murderers was very sad indeed.

The current system of press regulation in the UK is a sham. Jo Brand, a former mental health nurse, told the Guardian that press watchdog Ipso ("a toytown regulator") has so far achieved "square root of sweet FA" in tackling negative reporting. She's right. In 2016, the media can and should do far better. The worst thing a media outlet can do is feed the public misinformation about how one thing can cause mental illness or, worse, drive someone to suicide (see the Express's headline about a man "driven to suicide after battle with traveller site on his doorstep"). As Brand says, "It's not one thing that batters you and makes you kill yourself. It's a very subtle mix of events... Trying to make it look like it's one thing is a terrible thing to do... For all those people who do suffer, it's a punch in the stomach to their dignity."

What we say among friends on the sofas in our homes is very different to what can be said in a public space. But what we say on our sofas is important, too. We can do better, in 2016, than not challenging ourselves when we find the vulnerabilities of others weird or annoying. We can do better than using words like "mad," "mental," and "crazy" when talking about people we know with a mental health problem, because it is just one part of who they are. And, if we don't understand that part, we should be educating ourselves rather than sitting in a bubble of ignorance and assumption. We should be reading things and asking what we can do to help, not feeling burdened by someone's limitations. Human brains have infinite capacity for change and no one's mental state is fixed—how many of us really know that?

Being more conscious of the language we use around mental health is something every single person can do and it does make a difference. It's not a huge affront on our free speech—it's simple humanity. This year, it's something we can all try.

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