Ahead of tomorrow’s World Mental Health Day, Stephen Lambert discusses why the issue should be regional priority.

WORLD Mental Health Day places a spotlight on an issue which affects millions. It’s also about raising awareness and sharing a better understanding of mental health issues – especially suicide.

Eight hundred thousand people die by suicide across the globe every year. It’s the second highest cause of death among young people under 30. In Britain, men are three times more likely to take their own lives than women. Seventy five per cent haven’t been in touch with their family doctor before their death. Working class people living in the most disadvantaged places are ten times more at risk of suicide than those living in the most prosperous areas.

In the North of England one in four have a mental illness. In a report released last autumn by the mental health charity MIND two out of three people have experienced a panic attack or a bout of depression in the last year. One in ten children are estimated to have a diagnosable mental illness, and there’s a compelling moral and economic case for dealing with mental ill-health among teenagers.

Despite extra government investment, a survey by Young Minds revealed that half of all clinical commissioning groups in England aren’t spending the full allocation on young people’s mental health.

The notion and underlying causes of mental ill health remains a contested idea. The dictionary defines it as “a state of mind which affects the person’s thinking, perceiving or judgment to the extent that he/she requires care or medical treatment”. Given the level of critical discourse on the issue we must as educators avoid sweeping generalisations or labels.

Disclosure of the condition is normally only identified when a person is at “crisis point”. Most don’t come to a GP with a history of the illness. The absence of a support network in the wider community plays an important role in this. Mental health issues, which have a number of manifestations, have displaced unemployment as the region’s biggest social problem.

Making sense of it all remains problematic. In Victorian times it was seen as the work of the devil or evil spirits which resulted in thousands of Britons being incarcerated in large purpose-built asylums normally located outside towns or cities. By the 20th century the biomedical approach to the condition was widely adopted by psychologists which saw the cause as primarily biological – the brain – treated by drugs or ECT to “cure” the illness.

With the closure of mental health hospitals in the 1970s coupled with a “care in the community by the community” model, some scholars adopted the idea there was a social pattern to mental ill health.

Mental illness was a symptom of social inequalities with working class men and women and ethnic minorities affected. The figures reveal that people from the lower socio-economic groups are more likely to show signs of depression, anxiety, PTSD and stress brought on by deprivation, bad housing and long-term worklessness.

Women, it’s argued, are more likely to experience post-natal depression. Jobless men are more likely to die by suicide. As the charity Time for Change, notes: “Mental health is just not on the radar for many men.”

THE World Health Organisation argues that depression will be second most common health condition in the western world by 2020. It costs some £135bn each year in England alone. Depression is not only bad for happiness, it’s bad for the economy too. People with a severe mental health condition die up to 15 years younger than their peers in the UK. There’s a clear link between mental ill health, poor housing, under-achievement at school, alcohol dependency and loneliness.

Three out four people with long-term mental health conditions are excluded from the paid labour market according to a TUC report released last summer.

Negative stereotypes still persist. It’s argued that people who are mentally unwell are more likely to commit crime and harm others. Nothing more could be further from the truth. Victims of street crime are more likely to be those with mental health issues.

Much has been achieved by third sector organisations like Re-Think Mental Illness to break down taboo. Yet more work is required to support people, men in particular, to be open about their health. More educational employers need to open up to mental health as an HR issue. Mental health champions need to be appointed in every college and school to support both staff and learners.

Mental health services under the Government are at breaking point. Community-based services are patchy and under-resourced. On Tyneside there’s an 18-week waiting list for youngsters to access relevant child and adolescent mental health services.

Councils, schools and NHS trusts across the North are leading the policy agenda by pledging to give good mental health the same priority as good physical health. Newcastle Council has a Suicide Prevention Plan 2017 -2020, which has been put together with other partners.

Forward looking colleges like Gateshead have signed up to the Time for Change campaign while Newcastle College has a well-developed, Ofsted-approved student counselling service.

Nationally, measures to challenge discrimination at the workplace and toughen up the 2019 Equality Act to give better protection for employees and learners suffering a mental health problem are required.

Investment is needed in community based services and mental health nursing. Austerity and the controversial universal credit programme needs to be abandoned. And insensitive ESA and PIP assessment procedures need to be revamped with a more holistic compassionate approach being adopted to meet the need of service users.

  • Stephen Lambert is a Newcastle City Councillor writing in a personal capacity.
  • For those in distress, the Samaritans are there to listen 24 hours a day, 365 days a year by calling 116123 or by email at jo@samaritans.org