The De-politicisation of Mental Health Discourse

Mental Health Awareness Week is an example of how far society has come in terms of de-stigmatising mental health issues. It is now time for government to be as proactive as the people they represent.

Video: YouTube/ITV 

This past week was Mental Health Awareness Week. Various companies, celebrities and media outlets utilised their platforms to spread awareness about mental illnesses, which are growing ever more pervasive in the United Kingdom. ITV launched the Get Britain Talking campaign, with Ant & Dec sharing statistics on mental illness including the fact that over the past 15 years there has been a 48% rise in anxiety and depression amongst children. They raised some key points including the role our increased reliance on technology has on our mental wellbeing. Ant McPartlin himself has spoke candidly in the past about his own struggles with depression and addiction. Himself, Dec and anyone trying to de-stigmatise mental illness deserve great credit. As divided as we are in the U.K. there have undoubtedly been great strides made in society's understanding of mental health issues, even if there is still work to be done. So at this point it is important to make it clear that the point of this article is not to criticise anyone trying to do their part. On the contrary the point is to acknowledge how far society has come but realise that our social efforts alone cannot supersede lived experiences.

Recently, I was asked to speak at an event for Mental Health Awareness Week about my photography career. The general idea concept was to have "successful" people talk about how their creative pursuits allowed them to transcend the stresses of everyday life and psychological unrest. Much like ITV and the efforts of most companies putting on initiatives for Mental Health Awareness Week, I am confident the event I was approached for was created with good intentions. I also believe that to an extent, pursuing one's passions can alleviate some of life's stresses (for those whose passions lie in the fashion industry, results may vary). Even with all this in mind I could not go ahead with the event. Predominantly because I do not believe notions of self love, creativity, self expression and "just being yourself" are the antidote to widespread mental health problems. Life is not a Michael Cera coming of age movie. In my opinion, what really needs to be unearthed is the role external circumstance and lived experiences have on people's mental illnesses.

There are a myriad of mental health issues that people deal with ranging from psychosis, dysmorphia, PTSD to eating disorders, but the two that are perhaps best understood in the public sphere are depression and anxiety. The NHS officially explains depression as: "when you're depressed you feel persistently sad for weeks or months, rather than just a few days." It goes on to cite symptoms including: "continuous low mood or sadness", "feeling hopeless and helpless" and "not getting any enjoyment out of life". Obviously this does not holistically explain what depression is, given the constraints of language in explaining complex emotions. But we can roughly reason that depression is understood to be feeling extremely low for a prolonged period of time. The NHS officially cites symptoms of anxiety as including: "a sense of dread", "feeling constantly on edge" and "difficultly falling or staying asleep (insomnia)". Since it is not known what causes these illnesses, most rhetoric veers towards the idea that they come from within or are inherited. Which to an extent is true. I would argue however that if depression and anxiety are exaggerated forms of sadness and apprehension, a rise in circumstances that make people sad or apprehensive would naturally exacerbate underlying mental health issues. If we take for example the tragic case of father of three Phillip Heron. Heron had £4.61 in his bank account at the time of his death whilst waiting over a month for government help in the form of Universal Credit. I don't know whether Heron suffered from any diagnosed mental illnesses before the time of his suicide, but the situation that led to it would have almost certainly caused him to feel persistently sad for weeks or months rather than just a few days.

Photo: Mirrorpix

Between 2008 and 2018 real earnings have fell by roughly 4%. Austerity brought about by the conservative government has seen living standards obliterated. Inflation making the cost of everything higher with wages not rising in tandem has led to an explosion of poverty. Just to keep up many have turned to borrowing, often at high interest rates out of desperation. As of January this year, the U.K. household debt income ratio has reached 150%. These statistics highlight the causality between politics and mental illness. To some people mental illnesses are understood to be a case in which the subject is devoid of reality or "insane". Living in the fifth biggest economy in the world, where the richest 1000 citizens have a combined net worth of £771.3bn that somehow simultaneously allows people to starve to death would make any "sane" person depressed. Particularly those who are struggling to make ends meet or feed their children. "Illness" (whether mental of physical) is usually thought of as one's body not operating in the way it should. A rational mind reacts to what it encounters and the information it digests. In this sense, those who are extremely anxious or depressed about life in the U.K. arguably have minds that are actually functioning properly. This is exemplified by some of the groups that suffer from mental health diagnosis the most. 

As recorded by black people from African and Caribbean heritage are far more likely to be diagnosed with mental illnesses and sectioned. The ways in which race and class co-constitute each other in the U.K. are too vast to unpack within this article, but there is some great literature for those interested in delving further. The point is that from experience, there is a plethora of reasons to be dissatisfied with life when black in the U.K. These range from: statistically earning £7'000 less than other graduates on the sole basis of being a black male, the windrush scandal which made it clear that citizenship and belonging are not legally protected if you aren't white, the government emboldening racist stop and search policies that you know will specifically impact you and no one else, MP's using the phrase "nigger in a woodpile" and still keeping their jobs to the Prime Minister facing no consequences for frequently using racial slurs. Black people are obviously not the only marginalised community, but the disparity between our quality of life versus other races corresponding with a higher rate of mental illness diagnosis, does elucidate the fact that mental health is not as abstract a concept as people believe. As such it cannot be solely transformed introspectively. Any sensible person would be sad that their goals opportunities are lessened and anxious that their capacity for criminalisation is heightened. This notion is further exemplified by the astronomical suicide rates in detention centres.

These issues are highlighted and talked about openly by artists such as Dave, who in the song My 19th Birthday raps "You know the difference between life and death is one bad decision, 3 or 4 inches. So many man my age have got P.T.S.D and I don't think that it's hit them" and "I really wanna help, but it's out of my control and jurisdiction'. Cause a lot of road yutes have got a sickness, mentally". Majestically painting a picture of how criminal endeavours onset by poverty act as psychological damnation for young black men. Artists including AJ Tracey and Stormzy have also spoken of their own experiences with mental illnesses in an effort to further dialogue. The black music community has also rallied around artists such as Ramz and J Hus who have posted on social media expressing thoughts of suicide. If the main obstacle of mental illness was openness or stigma, Dave's music would not be so well received and artists who post such messages would not receive as much empathy. As re-affirming as the empathy is, it doesn't necessarily do anything disband the socio-economic structures that create the issues in the first place. In essence, using these examples we can reason that a key factor in so many people not enjoying life, is life being an objectively bad experience. Too often caused my political decisions for which there needs to be more accountability, in lieu of the idea that simply talking about your feelings will solve everything.

 Genuine government action is response to life's challenge would placate people's anxieties exponentially more than talking about them amongst friends. For example, if someone living in a high-rise flat with the same sort of cladding that caused Grenfell Tower to burn was suffering from anxiety, they could talk to their GP or friends about how uneasy it made endlessly. It would not stop them also burning to death were their building to have a similar fire. I would imagine therefore that it would not be particularly cathartic. The reality is that anxiety is the appropriate feeling in response to impending danger. If however the report in to Grenfell Tower had not taken over 2 years to be released (still pending at the time of writing this), the survivors had been re-housed (which has not happened) and there had been a widespread initiative to make sure this sort of cladding was no longer if use (3 for 3 in government failures) I imagine it would somewhat ease the stress because it would confirm that their lives are worth something.

Photo: YouTube/Santan Dave

As mentioned earlier in the article the breadth of mental illnesses that exist as well as the spectrum of how intensely each of them are felt means that they cannot be entirely reduced to the product of socio-economic factors. A lot of sufferers probably would not consider themselves to be marginalised socially therefore rendering their feelings unexplainable. This is no way means it matters less or anyone needs to feel "justified" in their emotions. Everyone deserves a better quality of life if possible. In these cases campaigns, initiatives, celebrity endorsements and other such things are a positive because they might inspire people who would not usually seek help to do so. It's a shame therefore that if they did, they would likely find themselves alongside 122'000 other patients who face a wait of up to 8 weeks. Largely due to another masterstroke from the conservative party, who according to the BBC have cut around 6'700 NHS mental health nurses since 2010.

The above typifies the wider point. We have made some really positive steps as a society in terms of being willing to give and accept help and support. The next step is for the help and support to actually be readily available. Neither social attitudes or progressive legislation are 'more' important than the other in regards to treating mental illnesses. But both are redundant in isolation. The younger generation have made great strides towards a better future. It is time for our legislators to walk alongside us rather than standing in our way.

Article written by Martyn Ewoma. See more from Martyn here


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