Sarah Stook is studying politics at Lancaster University.
A recent inquiry ordered by Prime Minister into the Mental Health Act revealed some deeply disturbing truths. Among them was the finding that that those with serious mental health problems (such as schizophrenia), were being treated poorly in psychiatric hospitals after being sectioned, with those of ethnic minority backgrounds being treated the worst.
Whilst some felt that being sectioned helped them, others reported that they felt it was the wrong decision, leaving them feeling trapped and isolated when they were supposed to be helped. So what do these experiences tell us?
Labour’s response is often focused on money: the Government apparently isn’t funding mental health treatment well enough – or, worse, is is actually taking away funding. But money is only a part of the problem: it is rare for the quality of care in general to be discussed.
For other recent surveys have revealed that some people who have attempted suicide were afterwards told by mental health professionals that they hadn’t ‘really tried because they were still alive.’ In age of mental health stigma, we should expect (but not accept) this kind of comment from “regular Joes”. But from mental health professionals? Making this kind of remark to someone who has not just thought of suicide, but actively attempted it, should be unacceptable.
The report that Theresa May commissioned goes on to say that ethnic minority people often have worse experiences, since mental health issues among some of them are severely underreported – not to mention, sadly, very common. When the lowest and most vulnerable in society are not being helped effectively, we need to look at ourselves. So what is the answer?
In last year’s Conservative Manifesto, the Prime Minister referred again to “the good that government can do”. The majority of this site’s readers will not have been spectacularly impressed by these words, and nor was I. But the sentiment does apply in this case – because the Mental Health Act is government business. And considering the severity of the mental health crisis in this country, one would imagine that it enjoys cross-party support. Here are some of the actions that government should take.
First, it must ensure adequate training and provision, in order that professionals understand the care that they should provide and patients understand the care that they should receive.
Next, it must ensure a fair complaints process, so that patients do not suffer repercussions, and do not have to wait longer for help, if their regular provider is the one that they have complained about. Yes, this will require more money in a time when many Conservatives are begging for small government, but who can deny the worthiness of the cause? The fact is that almost everyone reading this article will know somebody who is or has suffered. One in four people in the UK have a mental health issue at any given time.
In a non-fiscal way, there is an even bigger demon: stigma. Comments about all sorts of mental illness are said every day, ignorance is still widespread and whilst discrimination for most it is casual, active discrimination is still very much a problem.
Depressives are told to “cheer up”; those having panic attacks to ‘”calm down” and those with schizophrenia, especially with a paranoid element, are called “crazy”. People are often told that they are either exaggerating their symptoms, or that they are making them up for attention.
But those who have gone through such difficulties know that that nobody would wish for either the mental and physical pain involved. Your body gives up on itself, and you live an existence so miserable that you yearn for release. May stepped up by making mental health training mandatory in schools, but working professionals have said that they have not seen action on this.
In the public sector, such as in the police, there is an opportunity for an expansion of services. And whilst the Government has (and should have) no right to interfere with private business, the Health and Safety (First-Aid) Regulations 1981 require adequate care for those taken ill or injured at work. (That is physically, however, and not mentally – though there are perhaps opportunities here for action.)
The Conservative Party cannot suddenly stop stigma overnight. But education is a powerful tool – and educating both staff and the public can begin to create change. Many dismisss the Conservatives as an agent of evil – but compassion and conservatism can, and often do, co-exist. Mental health should not be a football. Instead, our common goal should be ending stigma, and ensuring that quality care is provided to all, not just a lucky few.