Two reports published within 24 hours of one another have yet again highlighted that, for all the heightened public awareness of mental illness in recent years, it remains socially stigmatising and seriously underfunded. The first report, ‘Thriving at Work’, commissioned by Our Glorious Leader no less, was a review of the way in which the workplace responds to those members of the workforce afflicted by various mental health symptoms. One sufferer of chronic depression, interviewed by the BBC in the wake of the report’s publication, was advised to look elsewhere for employment by her boss when she admitted her condition and was made to feel increasingly uncomfortable once it became common knowledge in the office; she left the job not long after, as do around 300,000 a year for similar reasons, costing employers upwards of £42bn.
The findings of the experts who compiled the report on behalf of the PM confirmed beliefs that mental illness has yet to fully shed its taboo status. At a time when the cry for an end to all discrimination based on race, religion and sexuality is at its loudest, it’s ironic that those whose needs are deemed most worthy of attention are those whose otherness is blatantly obvious in either the colour of their skin or the clothes they’re wearing – whether a lady in a burqa or a feller in a dress. Their ‘diversity’ is a virtual sandwich board of personal advertising, something that makes it easier for the majority to discern the difficulties of the minority.
By contrast, mental health symptoms being invisible to the naked eye always present its sufferers with a problem as to how it relates to those around them, unlike any physical illness. If the symptoms aren’t visible, it’s as though others are unconvinced there’s any sort of problem because they can’t see it like they can an arm in a sling or a leg in a cast, like they need to have it simplified in the most basic manner as proof the sufferer isn’t acting up. Mental illness is more challenging to the non-sufferer and can often spawn a sceptical attitude towards the condition as a consequence, almost forcing the sufferer to convince the doubters as if they were faking insanity to get out of the army. I’ve been confronted by it myself. ‘There’s nothing wrong with you; you’ve got two arms and two legs – what’s the problem? Depression is just another word for laziness.’
This attitude is in place from an early age. The second report into mental health to have appeared this week concentrated on the youth experience and how poorly served young sufferers are by the system. This review discovered almost 40% of services exclusive to children and adolescents in England were in desperate need of improvement. ‘The World at One’ covered the report by making a Freedom of Information request on the subject and discovered some children were having to wait up to 22 months before seeing a specialist mental health professional. I must admit these revelations didn’t strike me as particularly revelatory, however; anyone who has followed my regular posts on the severely mentally-handicapped child I’ve christened X probably won’t be surprised to learn X herself has endured gaps of a similar nature between such appointments.
The report was compiled by the Care Quality Commission, whereas earlier this year, NHS England published its own suggestions for improvement; ‘Five Year Forward View for Mental Health’. Claire Murdoch, head of mental health for NHS England claimed there has been an increase of 15% of spending on mental health services for the young over the past twelve months. ‘Without a doubt, after years of drought,’ she says, ‘the NHS’ mental health funding taps have now been turned on.’ As ever with the NHS, though, one wonders where the money goes; or, to maintain Ms Murdoch’s watery analogy, which plughole it’s destined to disappear down.
‘The World at One’ spoke to 22-year-old Alice Gibbs, who was diagnosed with anorexia at 12 and, after a six-month wait to see a specialist, received four years of treatment in her home city of Leicester, despite its limitations. There was an eating disorder unit in London she now reckons had the facilities to accelerate her recovery, but as a physically and mentally fragile 16-year-old, being away from the support of her family probably wouldn’t have helped either. Had somewhere of that unit’s calibre been closer to home, she surmises she wouldn’t have lost a decade to such a debilitating condition. Her experience seems to back up the ‘postcode lottery’ theory when it comes to healthcare.
Alice Gibbs is still receiving treatment, saying she has ‘managed’ her condition rather than cured it, something that anyone who has experienced mental illness will recognise; it’s always a case of management rather than cure, because there isn’t a cure. Alice Gibbs’ treatment could well be an obstacle to any career ambitions she harbours, though ‘Thriving at Work’ makes 40 recommendations to encourage employers to help their employees with mental health issues stay in their jobs. But it would seem it depends on who you work for. The insurer Aviva received special praise in the report, yet they seem to be the exception rather than the rule. On the whole, both of this week’s reports into mental illness don’t paint a very rosy picture of this country’s care for and treatment of those unfortunate enough to fall under its devastating shadow.
And whilst it makes a refreshing change to commend Theresa May for something – ‘It is only by making this an everyday concern for everyone,’ said the PM, ‘that we can change the way we see mental illness’ – we cannot neglect the callous disregard for sufferers of mental illness that her Government and its predecessor has presided over via its continuous use of Atos to decide whether or not someone is ‘faking it’ for benefits. The toxic legacy of the IDS era is still with us in the shape of Universal Credit, after all; and Mrs May won’t budge on that one. Giving with one hand and taking away with the other yet again.
© The Editor