Now, as a society, more than ever before, we are aware of the importance of keeping ourselves fit and healthy, and how we can do so. We know that smoking is bad and causes an increase in lung cancer risk, we know that eating excessive amounts of red meat, drinking too much alcohol and consuming vast amounts of sugar increases our chances of diabetes and health problems in later life. We know that exercising regularly and eating more fruit and vegetables is better for our bodies. The result of this of course is an increasing life expectancy.
Furthermore, in general, we know when to spot signs of physical health problems, and when medical intervention is needed to stop them. We are more aware of the symptoms of illnesses, cancers and physical damage to our bodies such as muscle tears and strains. This is also incredibly important when it comes to medical intervention to help one recover. The reason why we are conscious about our physical health as a society is because we all want to live well, doing the best we can to make sure we are fit for work to earn money, to spend time with friends, family and loved ones or to travel the world.
However, when it comes to thinking about and addressing our mental health, as a society, we are not as conscious and aware of symptoms, and the impact of negative mental health on individuals. The first point to convey is that mental health problems are incredibly common, with research showing that 1 in 4 of us will suffer from a mental health problem at one point in our lives. These problems can range from burning ourselves out due to overworking, to mental health disorders such as anxiety, panic attacks, schizophrenia, bipolar and depression just to name a few.
The effects of bad mental health can have the same effects on an individual if they had bad physical health such as missing work, cancelling plans and holidays, which can impact one’s quality of life. In fact, research from the HSE has found that stress, depression and anxiety has led to 17 million days of work being lost in 2021 and 2022. However, many people still feel that they cannot speak about their mental health publicly.
For example, whilst a physical illness such as a fever may be discussed and talked about at length among friends, families and in the workplace and time off being granted for this, the same cannot be said for mental health illnesses. This is because, as summed up conclusively by the Mental Health Foundation; stigma and discrimination around mental health prevents individuals from opening up and reaching out for support.
If a physical health condition was causing such strife amongst the population, legislation would have been introduced a long time ago in order to address the issue. The best, and most recent example of this was the governmental response to the coronavirus pandemic. It was clear from the very outset that coronavirus was a deadly disease, and hence why specific measures were required to restrict the transmission of the virus in order to help the health service cope and save lives. A vaccine was quickly developed and now people are much less likely to be seriously impacted by coronavirus if they fall ill with it.
However, as we all know, mental health problems have existed in their many forms for as long as the human race has survived. Whilst one can admit that the understanding of specific conditions and their impacts have waxed and waned over the centuries, ever since what author Joanna Bourke calls the ‘deinstitutionalisation’ of mental health disorders from the 1960s to the 2010s.
I would argue that the ‘deinstitutionalisation’ of mental health has had two major impacts: the first being that people are less likely to think that an individual who suffers from mental health problems requires sectioning under the Mental Health Act, which is a positive move, however, the burying away of mental health issues and consequential stigma associated with opening up means mental health issues are much less likely to be talked about, meaning they go unaddressed.
Mental health has become an issue which is no longer taken seriously when it should be. In my experience, there is a fair lack of understanding regarding mental health in some areas of the health service, with GPs inclined to issue medication and move individuals on instead of trying to knuckle down to the route of the problem. I am in no way putting a blame on the health service for this, however concrete funding and policy change are needed at a governmental level to address the mental health pandemic.
Work is needed on a governmental policy level, but as activists promoting the importance of mental health and raising awareness of its impact, the narrative is already changing from the bottom up. So, let’s continue to be the change, together.