Time To Worry – An Update

Three years ago today I wrote a piece called Time To Worry, in which I shared some horrific results from recent studies into our mental health. I reblogged the piece last year with a commentary, and as we are again approaching Time To Talk Day (7 February this year) I thought it right to share the post again, both for newer readers to see for the first time and also with an update for those who may have seen this before. Even if you have already read the original post I encourage you to read this update: our mental health is vitally important to us and we all need to be aware of this, and of how we can help ourselves and others. As is my usual practice I will give you the original words and then return to round things up after. This is the initial post:

A few days ago there was a report in the paper of a study conducted by the Health and Social Care Information Centre, as part of the Health Survey for England. More than 25% of the 5,000 respondents said that they had been given a diagnosis of mental illness at some point. 33% of the females and 19% of the males reported this, and the highest rate was found amongst the 55-64 age group, where the figures rose to 41% and 25% respectively. The most common diagnosis was for depression, at 19% overall – 24% for women and 13% for men. At the extreme, one in 14 women has attempted suicide, and one in 25 men, yet the male suicide rate is more than three times higher than for females. These are scary statistics! There has been a great deal of research showing that men are much less likely to recognise that they may need help for a mental health problem and to seek assistance for it. But it appears that we are much more successful at killing ourselves! This is apparently because men choose more lethal suicide methods, and because we are more impulsive and likely to act on a suicidal impulse, particularly when alcohol is involved.

A separate report has also found that the number of unexplained or sudden deaths (i.e. not from suicides) of mental health patients in England has risen by more than 20% in the past three years, a total of 1,713 in 2014-5 up from 1,412 in 2012-3. Unsurprisingly, there are many now jumping on the bandwagon of blaming the Government and the NHS for underfunding mental health services to the point where there are insufficient resources to cope. They may well have a point: I know from my own time spent working for an NHS Trust providing mental health services just how much of a Cinderella service it was and still is, and how the large general hospitals took up a huge part of the funding.

But whilst that is clearly a major issue it is not my point today. I’ve quoted numbers which may or may not mean much to you. Does 1,713 deaths in a population of around 50 million seem all that many? Is this something we should expect and somehow accept as the norm? Should we heck as like! Every single one of those who make up those statistics is an individual tragedy. Every single one of them had family and friends who cared about them and who are affected by their loss. And I wouldn’t mind betting that most of them had at some stage been stigmatised by their diagnosis of mental illness – assuming that they had sought help, as not all of them will have done. I mentioned earlier that men are slower to seek help, if they ever do. I know this to be true, as I did it myself and subsequently found that I was far from alone in doing so. Looking back on the time when I was diagnosed with depression (described in the Story of my Illness see the menu above) it is very easy to trace a long, slow decline in my health until I reached the point at which I recognised my need for help. I eventually saw my doctor in October 2011 but can recall events from April that year which were clearly related to this, and no doubt there were others before then: I had been off work for three months some five years earlier with what was termed ‘stress’, so it was lurking in my make up. Although I worked for an organisation which provided treatment for these kinds of illness I didn’t want to accept that maybe this is what was happening to me. Part of that may be the stereotypical male lack of insight, but there is more to it than that. A major factor is that mental illness is stigmatised. From the simple, everyday “pull yourself together” type of comments, which betray a lack of understanding and empathy, to the much more malicious type which can often be found in real life bullying and in social media, people with a mental illness are somehow made to feel ashamed of their problem, that they should in some way get over it as they aren’t really ill, are they: others can’t see anything wrong with them in the same way that they could if they were on crutches, for example. If I can’t see it, you don’t have it!

This is compounded in all sorts of ways. Often these are quite innocently done, such as the everyday use of phrases like “it all went mental” or “he’s a nutter.” But if I look back to when I was a child, a common playground insult was to call someone a “spastic” if they did something clumsy. We have learned how offensive this really is and it is no longer used, to my knowledge. Political correctness may be guilty of many stupidities but one of the successes of the past forty years or so since it became a force is a better understanding of some of the derogatory language we use and how we can improve on it. But has it had any real impact in the world of mental illness?

Sadly, I think not. Although we still have much to do, e.g. in the likes of public buildings and public transport, we have come quite a way in recognising both the needs of physically disabled people and the way we talk about their illnesses. I may be biased in my outlook but I don’t see the same progress having been made in respect of mental illness. Whilst part of the answer is to provide more funding for treatment, there is a much wider issue: we need to educate ourselves better about mental illnesses and how we respond to them and deal with them in others. Unless we do, those statistics I quoted are likely to get worse before they can start getting better. To me, this is very much the time when we should worry about this and ask ourselves if we are doing enough about it, not just as a society but as individuals within it, in our own approach to people with mental illness and how we deal with them. We should have been doing this already, and we shouldn’t hold back from doing it now.

And now back to today. Unfortunately, I don’t see any real change in the situation since I wrote this piece. The UK government has recently proclaimed a new healthcare initiative which includes some much needed improvements to mental health support and treatment. My problem with it, though, is that the government has sidetracked itself in a major way with the issues surrounding the EU and our relations with other countries, particularly the US. Worryingly, with all that has been going on over there to destroy healthcare, there are signs that our government wants to move towards ever greater involvement of the private sector in the National Health Service (NHS). Funding for mental health care needs to be increased significantly, to meet the need for much better training for, and provision of, services. Everything I said in that original piece is still germane and will, I fear, continue to be. The government has been making noises about improving mental health care for several years but has yet to deliver in a major way. Yes, there have been improvements but, to an observer, these don’t yet appear to have been fully co-ordinated, thereby diminishing their potential effectiveness. Add to that the almost daily reports of the impact of Brexit uncertainty on the NHS – massive losses of staff from overseas, difficulties in persuading workers to move to this country (and who can blame them?) – and the need for large increases in staff with suitable training to support the government’s stated objective. It doesn’t look promising, does it? We can but hope that the intended service enhancements deliver on the government’s objective, and that the dire forecasts for the financial impact on the country of leaving the EU don’t manifest themselves in a retrenchment and budget cuts. We’ve had ten years of austerity, we don’t need to be further damaged by political decisions.

As I’ve often said, I started this blog to share my experience of mental ill health, and although I veer away from that as a subject it is still something which is hugely significant for me. This is the first – a trailer, if you like – of what I plan to be a series of posts on mental health, which will include more detail on the most recent government initiative and the mental health of children and young people. These are topics that should concern us all, and I hope my small voice can help in widening awareness of mental health issues.

 

I Hope You Dance

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about family, and specifically about how we create our own little dynasty. In our lifetimes, we are nurtured by parents who instil in us the basis of the values by which we live our lives. Sadly, for some, this process is unsuccessful, and I know that not everyone will feel as lucky as I do. Next Sunday is Father’s Day, and I’ll be celebrating the fact that the man who helped bring me into the world is still going strong at 90. I was born in the days when everything happened in black and white, but still have a few cherished photos from that time, like this one:

As you can probably tell, that was quite some time ago – I was born in September 1953, so that photo dates from Spring 1954. I grew up in a town badly affected by WW2, particularly in terms of bomb damage, and although we didn’t know it at the time the rebuilding of our town was taking place while we were on the brink of some major social and technological changes. My teens – the years during which we begin to understand the world a little better, during which we develop our own values and political sensibilities – were played out against the backdrop of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ and all the changes they brought, not least in pop culture, but also with the growth of democracy, of people finding their voice. This was notable in student protests and demonstrations, which hadn’t happened previously on a large scale. It wasn’t as marked in the UK as elsewhere – for example, France in 1968, or the US in the anti-Vietnam War protests – but as I went through secondary school and university I like to think that my awareness of the changing world developed in me a sense of what is important in life, of the values that helped me to care about what kind of world we were creating for our children and for future generations.

As we become adults, we build relationships of our own and, if we are blessed, we help to continue our own dynastic line. I have two wonderful daughters, and would like to think that I played a little part in helping them become the people they are today. My ex-wife deserves the lion’s share of the credit for helping them become the caring, capable women they have turned out to be, but at least one of them appears to have inherited my socialist tendencies!

One of the overlooked results from a divorce – when you are the one to move out of the family home – is that you tend to leave behind the photo albums. I’ve been looking through the photos I do have, and can’t find any comparable with the one of me and my Dad. I did find a number of shots of my first born with me, like this one, probably taken when she was about 4:

The earliest I could find of her, which looks as though she was no older than 2 or 3, is this one:

I’m not sure if that look reflects guilt or pleasure. Maybe both!

And here’s one of her at 5, with her baby sister:

The reason for these reflections, and of thoughts about what the future holds for the people we love, is that this little girl has just had a baby of her own. I’m now grandfather to a beautiful granddaughter, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. I could share many pictures with you, but I’ll spare you the overload! This is our new family member:

She has been born into a good family, with parents who adore her and will give her everything they can to build her life. I wonder what the future holds for her? The world in which we live is, in many ways, safer than the one I grew up in, but there are still many threats to our way of life. But it seems incongruous at such a joyous time to be thinking about that. Politicians, governments etc will continue to come and go, but the core of human life will always be there – and love, families, relationships are the essence of that.

What I hope for my lovely new granddaughter is that she will have the best life possible, and will create and take her own opportunities to make her mark in the world. The title for this piece is that of a song by Lee Ann Womack. It is about her own children, written not long after her second child was born. I’m the world’s worst dancer, but fortunately for me the metaphor is used here to mean that Lee Ann hopes her child will find and take opportunities in life – ‘I hope you never lose your sense of wonder……and when you get the chance to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance’:

The adorable toddler in the video is probably around 20 now, and I wonder how her life has developed? Like her mum, I have hopes for my granddaughter’s future, but really these all boil down to one thing – that the little ones will be happy in whatever they do. Really, we can’t ask for any more than them taking their chance to dance, can we?

For Mother’s Day

This coming Sunday, 11th March, is celebrated here in the UK as Mother’s Day. This day has longstanding religious tradition and history behind it, although you’d be forgiven for not noticing that nowadays. These traditions vary, depending on the religion. Here the day is actually recognised in the church calendar as Mothering Sunday, and falls on the fourth Sunday in Lent. Because Easter is early this year, this means that for the UK, Channel Islands, Isle of Man, Irish Republic and Nigeria, who use this date, Mother’s Day is also earlier than in some years. There are in fact 32 different dates around the world on which Mother’s Day is celebrated, the most commonly used of which is the second Sunday in May, which is the day in North and South America, and across large parts of Europe, Africa and Asia. The modern version was first celebrated in the USA in 1908, after a campaign by a lady called Anna Jarvis to have a designated day for mothers. Commercialisation began in the 1920s, when Hallmark began selling cards, and Jarvis was arrested for a public protest against this. But the date and nature of the celebration have since been widely adopted.

The commercialisation of the date means that it is ubiquitous. Apart from all of the advertising which uses the day as the basis for promotion – often in incredibly dubious and convoluted ways – there are TV programmes, articles in papers and magazines etc, which are very difficult to avoid unless you become a hermit. And in this modern technological age, I’d also need to stop checking my emails too. Some of the bombardment is unbelievable: I even had an email the other day from a clothing company which only sells men’s clothing, inviting me to purchase one of a choice of outfits to wear when celebrating with my mother, from the formal suit to go to the posh lunch to smart casual if cooking her a meal at home, complete with an apron!

Mother’s Day is a hard one for me. My Mum died nearly ten years ago, on 15th May 2008 and, whilst the immediacy of the feelings of loss is somewhat diminished by the passage of time, those feelings are still there. Many millions have lost their mother, and could do without the commercial juggernaut reminding us of what we have lost and what we could have otherwise been doing. It’s a difficult time of year. I find myself wishing that all of the companies stuffing this down my throat would roll up their promotional material very tightly and insert it where the sun doesn’t shine. And I’d bet I’m not alone in that. I shall be spending this Sunday in quiet reflection, remembering the person who brought me into this world and all that she did for me. I don’t need any marketing to tell me how to do that. I find myself agreeing with Anna Jarvis: this should be a day to celebrate our mothers, not to spend loads of money. Whilst the cards, flowers, chocolates and wine – especially the wine! – may be very welcome, do mothers really need this to know that they are appreciated? Wouldn’t telling them, face to face, be much better? And doing things for them, to show them that you care? Not just on Mother’s Day either: our mothers are very special people and deserve to know that our love for them is always there, with or without the giving of physical gifts on a particular day to make the statement for us.

If you’re going to be spending Mother’s Day with your Mum, I hope you – and she – have a fantastic day, full of the joy that families give us. And long may you be doing that: the happiness of days like Sunday will build into cherished memories. To repeat myself: Mums are special people, they deserve our love.

 

Mum, Dad, my sister, a cousin (top) and me, c.1960 I think.