World Mental Health Day – are we learning?

Today is World Mental Health Day. A day to raise awareness and understanding, to encourage discussion and learning, and boy is it needed. Yes, we are getting there slowly. Very slowly, through intelligent discussion and the work of many fantastic charities and organisations, but as long as our understanding of mental health conditions falls way behind our knowledge of physical problems, our ability to help and support those in need will continue to drop woefully short.

Nick Clegg said this week:

“It is wrong that relatives and friends needing a hip operation can expect treatment within a clear timeframe but someone with a debilitating mental health condition has no clarity about when they will get help.

“I want this to be a country where a young dad chatting at school gates will feel as comfortable discussing anxiety, stress, depression, as the mum who is explaining she sprained her ankle.”

Brilliant. We need more, much more of this, and more importantly actions to back up the words. Through positive awareness raising such as this the stigma surrounding mental health conditions will continue to drop; a stigma that sees individuals resist seeking help, resist talking to friends and family and resist taking the first step to recovery. A stigma that kills. Greater understanding will enhance our ability to do what as kind and compassionate individuals we are all capable of doing. We must learn to not be afraid to talk.

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Scrolling through my social media feeds this morning it is encouraging to see many positive references to World Mental Health Day, not just from friends and organisations involved in mental health, but a much wider spectrum of the general public who are actively involved. Again, brilliant, but we need to see actions. Health Minister Norman Lamb said this week it was “outrageous” that mental health patients did not have the same waiting time targets as people with other conditions.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “This is a simple fact of discrimination. If you have cancer you get access to a specialist within two weeks. If you have a first episode of psychosis it’s completely haphazard. That is outrageous. There’s both a moral and an economic case to do this.” Exactly, so let’s see your words backed up with actions. Norman Lamb and Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt have the knowledge and the power to make positive changes, and it’s all down to education.

GPs as well as the public need educating. They also need to be equipped with the information and resources required within mental health services to be adequately able to treat patients who visit their clinics. Instead of an over-reliance on medication that may help – but unlike physical illnesses are very rarely the solution – they should be offering individuals a range of treatments, from medicinal to holistic and therapeutic, all readily available and accessible. In a 2014 survey of GPs, eight out of ten said mental health teams “could not cope” with their caseloads. This as much as anything needs urgent attention.

Following the recent tragic death of Robin Williams, who as well as fame and critical success lived a life of depression, drug and alcohol addiction, many individuals claimed he was being ‘selfish’ in committing suicide. Where is the compassion? Such sheer ignorance is simply the result of a horrific lack of understanding. So what can be done to inform and equip uneducated individuals and organisations?

helpful-adviceTime To Change have recently urged some of Britain’s biggest companies to sign a campaign to stamp out mental health discrimination in the workplace. The Time To Change pledge aims to develop an action plan for tackling mental health stigma, and so far more than 240 employers have signed up including the Bank of England, the Royal Mail, Barclays and Marks and Spencer. Excellent.

What can we do as individuals? Education is accessible in many ways, none better than through Mental Health First Aid training, available in various forms throughout the world. In Scotland and the UK the course teaches people how to identify, understand and help a person who may have or may be developing a mental health problem. In the same way we learn physical first aid, mental health first aid teaches you how to recognise signs of mental ill health and guides you in being able to offer help and support.

We all know the difference between a sprained ankle and a broken ankle. We know the difference between a cold and flu, between heartburn and a heart attack. So just as well we should all know the difference between bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, between schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder. Education and awareness will bring understanding and the ability to talk, help and heal.

And always remember, because it may help…

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