Awareness is not enough

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If you yourself haven’t suffered a period of mental ill-health, I can promise you that you know someone who has.

If like me, you spend most of your waking hours refreshing Twitter, on the look-out for cute puppy gifs, excellent puns and headlines to get outraged about, you’ll know that this week is Mental Health Awareness Week. And I don’t want to get all Piers “Sentient Ham” Morgan on you, but I’m fresh out of enthusiasm for yet another awareness-raising exercise.

I am genuinely sorry about this. Writing in anger – or weary resignation – rarely achieves very much, and my usual philosophy runs thus: if people are doing their best to do some good, then nay-sayers should back off and not get in the way. But I just can’t summon much energy for #MHAW17.

I just feel that for the most part, we know how to talk about mental health now. I know there are communities where it’s still taboo, and I think – to generalise in a sweeping fashion – men still struggle to be open about their mental health, but we have made so much progress in the last 6 or 7 years. That’s not to say we should stop, and that’s not to say there isn’t still work to be done, but perhaps we need to re-prioritise. Just for a bit. Enough with the “raising awareness” and “starting the conversation”, we need to be applying pressure to our MPs and political parties to insist upon increased funding for mental healthcare provision. In the day-to-day administration of running this country, providing adequate mental health services needs to be far higher up the agenda.

I will always admit to being one of lucky ones, but I don’t want anyone else to have to be discharged from an NHS CBT waiting list because they have a full-time job and can’t get to an appointment on a Monday at midday, and therefore have to find an extra £100 a month for private therapy. I’m lucky I can afford to do that, and I genuinely like the idea that someone less well-off than me can have my space on that waiting list, but it would be great if there was space for everyone that needed it, you know?

People who’ve dealt with dicey brain chemistry, tangled with troubling thought processes, gritted their teeth against tidal waves of paralysing fear or hollow numbness are all too aware of the horrors of mental illness, as are their loved ones. They have explained themselves over and over to friends, family, medical professionals, all the while knowing that unless you’ve been there yourself, you’ll never quite know how horrific it is when your own mind turns from a friend into an enemy. People are great, on the whole – they empathise, they don’t expect too much of you when you’re down with the demons, they listen, they offer hugs.

But what is needed is money. Politicians can chirp on about “parity of esteem” and “ending the stigma”, but without a properly funded national health service, their words are empty soundbites. I don’t give a fuck if you understand what goes on in my head or not, I DO give a fuck about being able to make a non-emergency GP appointment before July, and not having to pay £50 per therapy session if I want to not rely solely on meds. Not that there’s anything wrong with relying solely on meds, it would just be nice to address the faulty thinking patterns that reduced my sense of logic and reason to rubble in the first place. It’s like a broken bone – you don’t just give someone painkillers, you set the pieces so they knit together again.

I’m not trying to undermine the great work that’s been done by people like Bryony Gordon, Liz Fraser, Eleanor Morgan, Emily Reynolds, Prince Harry and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, to name just a few. We need to be able to talk honestly about our experiences without fear or shame. We should be able to expect empathy and understanding. We shouldn’t be embarrassed, nor worry about being judged. But we should also be able to expect services, staffed by trained professionals, to exist – to be there to help us knit our broken pieces together when we need them. We should be able to expect that these services are funded properly and that their staff are treated well and paid fairly. It shouldn’t be too much to ask. We need more than lip service.

Because the political is always personal, I’ll finish with this: do you like the NHS? Do you accept that the distance between not-a-care-in-the-world, strong-as-an-ox and curled on the sofa weeping at inexplicable fear is a hair’s breadth?

Do you accept that the difference between those two states is simply pure, blind luck?

Do you accept that if you yourself have not suffered a mental health problem then you definitely, definitely know somebody who has?

In the event of a health crisis – mental or physical – do you want there to be a doctor, a nurse, someone with expertise, who will examine you and say “ah, yes, here’s what we do to try and make you better”?

Remember your answers to the above questions when you step into the polling station this June.

Remember that hair’s breadth.

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